Monday, August 11, 2008

Interview with poet, translator Clayton Eshleman: The Man Who Translated Vallejo.

Interview with poet, translator Clayton Eshleman: The Man Who Translated Vallejo

With Doug Holder

“ Cesar Vallejo is Peru's greatest poet. And Clayton Eshleman is a rare phenomenon who, as a translator, has unwaveringly dedicated five decades to making the poetry of Vallejo ring true, as evidenced by his massive “ The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition / Cesar Vallejo." One can’t ask more of a translator.” Tino Villanueva (Winner of the American Book Award)

“ There’s no one else on the contemporary scene with Eshleman’s width, depth and multiplicity, at home with ju ju bands, Yeats, Jay Leno, Byzantium abstracts, you name it, he’s inside it. He’s Mr. Synthesizer, summing up, overviewing, envisioning, always saying he’d like to be more humble and lowly, but always becoming more complex, multilingual and multicultural.” Hugh Fox( Founding member of the Pushcart Prize)


Boston University professor Tino Villanueva emailed me recently to inform me that noted translator Clayton Eshleman was coming to the Boston-area in the fall. He is to read at the Brookline Booksmith and the Pierre Menard Gallery in October from a new collection of his work published by the local Black Widow Press. Villanueva asked me if I would be interested in interviewing Eshleman as he was the groundbreaking translator of Cesar Vallejo ( 1892-1938), the Peruvian poet, and one of the great innovators of 20th century. His poetry is distinct, and a step ahead of others in his day. Although in is his short lifetime he only published three collections of poetry, his work was revolutionary. Vallejo took the Spanish language to new heights of raw emotionalism. He experimented with grammatical norms, and struck at the dogma and rhetoric of the Catholic Church.

Clayton Eshleman is probably best known for being the editor and translator for his definitive work: “The Complete Poetry /A Bilingual Edition/Cesar Vallejo” ( Univ. of California Press). Eshleman has published numerous collections of poetry, birthed two noted small press magazines, was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, received grants from the NEA , was the winner of the Landon Translation Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and was the recipient of a National Book Award, to name a few honors.

Eshleman will read from “Grindstone of Rapport: A Clayton Eshleman Reader” ( Black Widow Press) Oct 16th 7PM at the Brookline Booksmith, and Oct 17th 7PM at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Mass.


Doug Holder: For some reason back in the late 50’s you were adrift. After taking some American poetry courses, and creative writing workshops—poetry took its hold on you. What attracted you to this genre as opposed to fiction etc…?

Clayton Eshelman: While I was a student at Indiana University in the late 1950s, I not only took a course in 20th century American poetry, but met at more or less the same time two poets: Jack Hirschman, who introduced me to 20th century European poetry, and Mary Ellen Solt, who knew William Carlos Williams, and brought back to Bloomington after a visit to Rutherford, books by Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson, which she immediately showed me. Also in this period, via Colin Wilson’s 1956 book, The Outsider, I discovered the writings of Blake, Lawrence, Kafka, and the paintings of van Gogh—and was offered the editorship of the English Department literary journal, Folio. Up to that point, the magazine had only published student and faculty writing. I wrote to Duncan, Creeley, Louis Zukofsky, and Allen Ginsberg, and asked them for poems. All were interested that something seemed to be happening at Indiana University and sent Folio work. Then I hitchhiked to Mexico the summer of 1959, having also discovered the poetry of Pablo Neruda. Curiously I did not meet any people writing fiction at Indiana University. On one occasion I worked on a short story but as soon as I finished it I put it aside and forgot about it. Something was simmering right under the surface of me in those days and poetry heated it into a boil. Overnight, as it were, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

DH: You wrote in the afterword of in “The Complete Poetry: Cesar Vallejo,” that Vallejo’s poetry is:”…the imaginative expression of the inability to resolve contradictions of man as an animal, divorced from nature as well as from sustaining faith and caught in the trivia of socialized life.”

I can see elements of that in Whitman’s and Eliot’s poetry and the list goes on. What is unique about Vallejo’s take other than the fact he was writing in Soanish?

CE: I believe what I wrote about Vallejo that you quote is unique to him, especially in the way that he expresses it, not only through his own suffering but through a compassionate identification with the suffering of humankind.

Whitman’s sense of self-discovery, probably via a mystical sexual encounter (addressed in Section 5 of the 1855 “Song of Myself”) was tied into an idealism (in spite of The Civil War) that protected—deflected—him from facing the real human condition.
Eliot simply could not write about his own life in any direct and honest way. Ezra Pound’s editorial involvement in what “The Wasteland” became is so formidable as to make him co-author of the poem. And while the spiritual emptiness of life, according to Eliot, is certainly present in the poem, such only indirectly evokes his lived life.

DH: You wrote that while translating Vallejo you were struggling with the old “Clayton” who was resisting change. Vallejo was forcing you to break out of the “ Presbyterian world of light,” that you were born to. If you hadn’t discovered this poet how might your life be different?

CE : My life would be less rich than it is today. However, I was also reading all of Blake while I was translating the Poemas humanos in Kyoto, as well as Charles Olson, Charles Baudelaire, and Walt Whitman, and I think I could have found my way under their charge. Your question makes me recall: I once passed out while reading Blake. Years later, Gary Snyder who was also living in Kyoto in the early 1960s told me that he had dropped by for an unexpected visit, seen me sprawled on the tatami next to a copy of Blake’s The Book of Urizen, and, assuming I was napping, went away.

DH: To translate a body of work it seems you have to live with it 24/7; to you really have to merge with the artist. Is there a certain kind of madness attached to this?

CE: No more madness in translating, and probably much less, that there is at the heart of poetry itself. Or let’s call it visionary madness, the desire to pull the literal world inside out and turn it into an imaginative world. Translating is very scholarly activity and the translator, if he is to do good work in my sense of it, has to set fantasy and his own poetics aside while he is at work.

DH: Can you talk about the two small literary magazines you founded: Caterpillar and Sulfur?

CE: In New York City, in 1967, I realized that I was part of a very interesting new generation coming into poetry, and that we had no journal to support our work. Caterpillar, which ran from 1967 to 1973 (20 issues), besides including artwork, commentary, and translations, published the poetry of Robert Kelly, Frank Samperi, Jerome Rothenberg, Diane Wakoski, Jack Hirschman, Gary Snyder, David Antin, Adrienne Rich, Larry Eigner, the very young Rae Armantrout and Ron Silliman, as well as older poets such as Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Lorine Neidecker. Sulfur, which ran from 1981 to 2000 (46 issues) was, in essence, an expansion of Caterpillar.
Besides contemporary poetry, artwork, commentary (negative as well as positive), and a lot of translations, Sulfur also published a lot of archival material—writing by the great dead (otherwise moldering in special collections libraries), such as Olson, Antonin Artaud, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, and Hart Crane. My idea with Sulfur was to keep several generations “alive” in a modernist/postmodernist context that was international.
Your readers may be interested in reading an three-way conversation about our magazines between me, Paul Hoover, and Maxine Chernoff, in the current issue of the on line magazine, Jacket.

DH: You have been published by Black Sparrow and New Directions. Do you have any anecdotes about James Laughlin of New Directions or John Martin of Black Sparrow? How important is the small press for translators?

CE: New Directions published me in a couple of their Annuals, but they have never published any of my books. I had only the slightest acquaintance with James Laughlin. Black Sparrow, on the other hand, published fifteen of my books and my wife Caryl and I were close friends of John and Barbara Martin for many years. We all had some great times together. Caryl and I moved in almost next door to the Martins in West Los Angeles in 1974, and after they moved to Santa Barbara and then to Santa Rosa we were invited for many weekend visits. Barbara and I liked to cook together. While John’s heart belonged to Bukowski (a poet I have never had a drop of interest in) he published all the poetry I sent him for some thirty years in handsome, responsibly-produced editions. And he did the same thing for Kelly and Wakoski. I once pushed him clothed into his swimming pool in Santa Barbara to show him how much I cared about him.

I would say that small or alternative presses have been as important for the translation of poetry as university presses—or that has been my experience, having had translations published by Exact Change and Soft Skull as well as University of California Press and Wesleyan University Press.

DH: Can you talk about your latest collection from Boston’s Black Widow Press “Grindstone of Rapport: A Clayton Eshleman Reader?” Is this what you would consider the definitive collection of your work? Can you talk about your association with the Black Widow Press/

CE: The Grindstone of Rapport, due out this October from Black Widow Press in Boston is in no way a definitive collection of my work—thanks to the generosity of Joe Phillips, the publisher of Black Widow Press, it is an ample Eshleman Reader, 630 pages of poetry, prose, and translations, spanning over 40 years of publications. It is, so far, the most accurate overview of what I have been up to since the early 1960s.

At the point that John Martin retired (and ended Black Sparrow Press as I knew it), I had to find a new publisher. I asked the Breton translator/scholar Mark Polizzotti, who lives in Boston, if he had any ideas. He wrote me that there was a new press in the city publishing French Surrealist poetry in translation, and that he thought they might be interested in my work. So I sent the manuscript of what became An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire (2006) to Joe, and he accepted it several days later. In 2007, he brought out a collection of prose poems, essays, notes, and interviews, called Archaic Design. I consider myself very lucky to have connected with Black Widow Press.

DH: Noted poet and translator Hugh Fox said told me you are the signature example of the American poet success story? How do you respond to that?

CE: I feel that I have been moderately successful as a poet. I have always had a publisher, and I have been invited to read at hundreds of universities (and had a decent teaching gig at Eastern Michigan University for 17 years—1986-2003). However, I am not successful in the way that John Ashbery or Adrienne Rich are. My work has always been published by small/alternative presses, I have never been invited to read at, say, the 92nd Street Y in NYC, or at the Dodge Festival, and have never received any of the big grants or prizes, like a MacArthur, Lilly, or Griffin. While it is too complex to go into here, I find it disappointing that my work, along with that of Robert Kelly and Jerome Rothenberg, has never been the subject of much study or scholarship. We seem to be part of a ghost generation, eclipsed between the peaking of the Olson/Duncan generation (right before us) and the Language Poets who, in the 1970s and 1980s, were taken by many to be the new innovative kids on the block. I feel that Robert, Jerry, and myself have made a formidable contribution to American poetry, one that has hardly, really, been considered so far.

Paris, October 1936

From all of this I am the only one who leaves.
From this bench I go away, from my pants,
from my great situation, from my actions,
from my number split side to side,
from all of this I am the only one who leaves.

From the Champs Elysées or as the strange
alley of the Moon makes a turn,
my death goes away, my cradle leaves,
and, surrounded by people, alone, cut loose,
my human resemblance turns around
and dispatches its shadows one by one.

And I move away from everything, since everything
remains to create my alibi:
my shoe, its eyelet, as well as its mud
and even the bend in the elbow
of my own buttoned shirt.

--Cesar Vallejo

Translated by Clayton Eshleman

--Doug Holder/Ibbetson Update/Aug 2008/Somerville, Mass.

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