On Rainer Maria Rilke, William Gass, Stumbling Across My Younger Self, and the Pleasures and Perils of Translating Poetry

by Kai Maristed

This past spring, at AGNI’s Issue 83 launch, I had the chance to chat with David Daniel, whose atmospheric, heart-moving poetry I had just discovered in the way you discover something you’ve missed before knowing it exists.

At some point I confided to David that, not being a published poet, I had recently experienced twinges of self-doubt, of feeling like a trespasser, while translating Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan and others. At the same time, the doing itself was exhilarating, and seemed, well…if not exactly easy, to flow toward rightness and resolution. Or was I being grossly naive, to believe I could simply listen closely to the German words and verses, immerse myself in the worlds they made, twirl them through my ear and mind and have them emerge as lines of English, lucid and faithful to original meaning while carrying as much of the original music as possible?

Shouldn’t there be more hard labor involved, more agony and frustration? Isn’t that why so many modern poetry translations appear to have been composed by a duo of Established Poet and her/his trusty sidekick, the Native Speaker? Like high level military brass going into the battlefields guided by, well, local translators. Didn’t William Gass, in his 1999 book-length essay, Reading Rilke, Reflections on the Problems of Translation, assert that, compared to having fluency in both languages, “it is more important that the translator have native-like possession of the language into which he is trying to put his chosen poem”? (‘Native-like possession’ being in context a strikingly awkward euphemism for ‘should be a skilled poet or literary eminence, capable of wrestling with the intransigency of the task.’)

David listened patiently to my questions, then answered with a single one of his own: “Well, and aren’t Gass’s translations of the Duino Elegies really terrible?” Nothing like a baldly-stated truth to make you burst out laughing.

I was able to cite Gass’s point because I’d reviewed his book back in the day, for the Globe, although I’d no memory of what I might have written. But recently, by chance, the seventeen-year-old, dog-eared advance copy of Reflections fell into my hands again. I opened it and the chase was on. On nearly every page, scrawled comments in various colors of ink in a rounder handwriting than mine is now. Excited exclamation points and double-underlines. “Crux!” “Nope.” “Huh?” “Use!” “How awfully pat.” “Once again, a religious, near-ecstatic moment.” (Evidence for my argument that RMR was not the absolute atheist Gass maintained.) “God-awful similes!” “Revolting, but sorta works!” Even a quiet, “I like this.” Traces of my younger self, preserved in the pages like the rose petals Rilke wrote of in so many poems, and himself liked to press.

The marginalia and responses were new to me. Not one struck a bell. But it was heartening to find myself mostly in agreement with that younger reviewer and even enlightened by her in places, while wishing she’d had the gumption to be more critical in her finished piece. (Also exhumed from the dustbin, thanks to the power of the World Wide Web.)

Has any other German poet been so often and variously translated into English as Rilke? What is the abiding appeal of the work, why does it and its insecure, social-climbing creator inspire such passion and possessiveness, and why do so many who fall under the spell—me included—feeling that all previous efforts somehow miss the marrow, embrace the temptation to try their own hand?

Is it the sheer beauty of how in Rilke image giving way to image forms meaning, paired with surficial accessibility? Because despite Gass’s lamentations, Rilke is not dauntingly difficult to translate. More challenging than classic stylists such as Goethe or Schiller, but he’s not in the same league as, say, Paul Celan. Or Bert Brecht, for that matter, the tart flavor of whose Berliner colloquialisms is devilishly difficult to redistill in any other language.

I told David Daniel that I too would like to try to translate Rilke, but heck, there were up to twenty versions of most of his poems out there already. “Don’t let that stop you,” he said. But truth is, I was lying. I’d already done it, and would continue. The marginalia in the Advance Copy include my own stabs at rendering Rilke, attempts at a simpler, more direct reflection. Gass quotes multiple predecessors (only to find them wanting, naturally) including such big guns as Spender, Leishman, and Stephen Mitchell. All of these authors worked in ‘duo’ mode as far as I can tell. It is beyond strange that he doesn’t mention Michael Hamburger, a native speaker and sensitive translator. And did Gass know that in the same year that Reflections appeared, Galway Kinnell would publish The Essential Rilke, in collaboration with Hannah Lieberman? Unlike Gass with Heide Ziegler, Kinnell gave his ‘native’ assistant jacket billing.

We speak of a ‘mother tongue’, and what more is there to say, the infant-mother bond being a universally shared human experience? But having a close second language is something else, a uniquely personal relationship. No matter how fluent one becomes in two languages, the rudiments of one came first. The second begins with an encounter, voluntary or not, and develops from there, a story as individual as a love affair. My German story started in high school, where I was given a no-brainer choice between that language and chemistry. At the outset I came to class with the too-common expectation of a silly-sounding, even ugly language, and a leery curiosity about the country, given its track record in the twentieth century. All that changed to fascination thanks to an inspiring, unconventional, demanding teacher. There followed a year of gymnasium in Berlin, then university in Berlin and Munich. Jobs. A marriage. A child who spoke no English until age eight, when we came to the States. I was, as they say, ‘eingedeutscht.’ My first publications (radio plays, reviews, political essays) were all in German. Later, I made a deliberate decision to write henceforth in English. A mistake, looking back?

Whenever I go back to in Germany (recently that’s been a few times a year) it’s an emotional homecoming: to the deep greens of forests and city gardens, the thick-walled houses, clanging street-cars, thronged bookstores, enormous dogs, waves of freshly baked bread and broetchen, and the language in my throat again, malleable as sculptor’s clay.

Gass deplores the ‘mean-spirited’ nature of the translating biz, full of jealousy and mutual put-downs. He must have reasons for saying so, but for me it’s hard to imagine the world of translation as a snake-pit. My own motive for venturing into the territory, apart from the excitement and illumination of the exceptionally interior reading translation demands, was a notion of giving back. Putting to use a gift that has transformed my life, that of having plural languages, of being two or three different people in one—or my own twin or triplet—relating to people, dreaming, and grasping life through the prism of different grammars, cadences, and vocabularies: Wortschaetze in German. Wordhord, in Old English. ‘Word treasure.’

Besides, what would anyone be fighting over? The pay is modest, and where’s the glory in such an intrinsically humble endeavor? One is the handmaiden of the author, and the less visible the better, I should think.

Not everyone thinks so. Gass writes, approvingly, about “the temptation to push past Rilke’s German into the Platonic poem itself, the poem no one can write without resorting to some inevitably distorting language…” And here is where I abruptly part ways with him and his like-minded colleagues. The Platonic poem? What beast is that? An abstract essence the translator perceives beyond the poet’s own language? Worse than hubris, this smacks of abuse, of the translator’s ego antsy to improve upon a poor, language-limited text. Not surprisingly, the results of said distortion are often clumsy, over-complicated, risible, or downright ugly. I leave it to the reader to consider these examples:


Rilke (from The First Elegy):

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hoerte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? Und gesetzt selbst, es naehme
einer mich ploetzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
staerkeren Dasein.

Maristed (close translation):

Who, were I to cry out, would hear me from within the angels’
array? And even if one should take me
suddenly to his heart: I would be annihilated by his
stronger being.

Gass (‘improving’ translation):

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions of Angels?
And even if one of them suddenly held me against his heart:
I would fade in the grip of that completer existence. [pp 57-58]


Rilke (from Archaic Torso of Apollo):

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhoertes Haupt
darin die Augenaepfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glueht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurueckgeschraubt,

Sich haelt und glaenzt.


We did not know his unimaginable head
where the eye-apples ripened. But
his torso glows still like a candelabra
in which his seeing, merely less bright,

persists and shines.


Never will we know his legendary head
Where the eyes’ apples slowly ripened. Yet
His torso glows as if his look were set
Above it in suspended globes that shed

A street’s light down.

Even when done by writers with a more gifted ear—Gass points to Robert Lowell and Ezra Pound as his illustrious predecessors in reaching for the Platonic ideal—I would maintain that veering from the text in pursuit of the ‘Platonic poem’ is a breach of the contract between original work and eventual reader. At best, the result is a third sort of oeuvre. Not a translation.

Lest I appear to be meanly picking on Gass (rather than taking him as an apposite and self-declared example), here is a 2010 ‘loose’ translation of the above, ueber-famous opening lines, by Sarah Stutt (a native speaker) as quoted and lauded in The Guardian:

We will never know his magnificent head,
the ebb and flow of his youth—
an orchard of ripening fruit,
yet his fire has not diminished,
incandescent light radiates
from his torso, (etc.)

Of course we want from the translator more sensitivity and intuition than Google’s service is likely to provide. But is it the translator’s task or prerogative to offer a text that strays radically from the original, no matter how pleasing the new imagery and versification? Is the poet well-served? Is the reader respected?

In my short review for the Globe I wrote that there are two axes in the matrix of translation problems: “the question of whether native proficiency is required” and “literal fidelity versus taking liberties.” Seventeen years ago I didn’t quite come down on one side or the other. I’m able to do so now, and also to see where the two axes are linked at origin. My recent exploration of translation might be called trans-positioning—one finds oneself in two places at once, listening to the nuances and double-entendres and historical undertones of words and phrases play in both languages, both worlds. Choosing, discarding, choosing, trying out the sound, the rhythm, the music, the stated intent and veiled allusions until something coalesces that rings true. Something that you feel the poet him/herself would accept as limning the intent, as keeping the heft of word-choice and images more or less intact.

Accept without flinching too much, that would be more than enough. Because no translation can be right, or definitive; questions and doubt must remain. We are all inadequate to our desires, translators and poets alike; the ultimate vision dances out of reach. Rilke expressed his own life-long struggle in this later poem:

Die Wende (Auszug)

Wenn er, ein Wartender, saß in der Fremde; des Gasthofs
zerstreutes abgewendetes Zimmer
mürrisch um sich, und im vermiedenen Spiegel
wieder das Zimmer
und später vom quälenden Bett aus
da beriets in der Luft,
unfaßbar beriet es
über sein fühlbares Herz,
über sein durch den schmerzhaft verschütteten Körper
dennoch fühlbares Herz
beriet es und richtete:
daß er der Liebe nicht habe.
(Und verwehrte ihm weitere Weihen.)

The Turning (extract)

When he, the waiting one, sat in a foreign place; the inn’s
distracted, turned-away room
sulking to itself, and in the avoided mirror
again the room
and later from the torturing bed
there it took counsel in the air
Incredibly took counsel
over his palpable heart
over his, despite the painfully shaken body
palpable heart
Took counsel and pronounced:
That he had no love.
(And denied him further sacraments.)

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MaristedAfter starting as a journalist and playwright in Germany, Kai Maristed published the novels Out After Dark (a Pen/Hemingway finalist) Fall, and Broken Ground, and the story collection Belong to Me. She’s taught at Emerson, Warren Wilson MFA and Harvard Extension School. Her stories, essays and translations have appeared in, e.g., The Kenyon Review, StoryQuarterly, The American Scholar, Zoetrope, and The Anchor Essay Annual, and most recently in AGNI, Epiphany, Consequence and Southwest Review. Kai lives in Paris and Massachusetts. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Almost Not

by Nancy Kassell

I was 15 and my mother was dying of ovarian cancer. My teachers were very kind. As a kid who read far outside and beyond school assignments, I wanted to be turned loose in English and American poetry. I needed to be somewhere outside my life. Miss S. agreed to an independent study, and all I had to do was keep a record of what I read—in between regular homework and visits to the hospital.

I was a little slow to recognize, as I made my way through anthologies and volumes of selected and collected, that, with the exception of a poem or two by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, or Edna St. Vincent Millay, all the works I read were written by men. Any secret thoughts I had about becoming a writer of verse were smothered in the cradle. Women didn’t or couldn’t write poetry. Or they did, but nobody bothered to notice.

At the age when kids need to discover what’s out there, I didn’t have the psychic energy to think about options or to explore how to become a poet. And I had a more pressing concern. I was the only child of divorced parents and only marginally connected with my father. I had to take charge of my life. As a top student in an academic magnet high school, I already saw myself as a future teacher and maybe scholar. I needed to belong somewhere, quick.

If I couldn’t explore becoming a poet, I could be an advocate for literature. Or could I? When I was in graduate school at a major university, there were no women in most academic departments—none in classics or philosophy and one in the English faculty of 96. If you lived in the academy, you lived the life of the mind, which was valued more than other aspects of being alive. This view reflected an ancient duality in Western culture. The intellect, ruled by reason, belonged to men; women were embodied, by nature subject to all the body’s processes, senses, and emotions. But there were women’s colleges, where women professors taught. Hard work would earn me a place.

I earned degrees in Greek and Latin literature. My Ph.D. thesis was on Horace’s Odes. I published in journals and taught for 25 years.

Later still, in the midst of a midlife upheaval, the old desire stirred and I found a new source of courage: the feminist movement. Many women were “writing women’s lives,” which meant giving voice to women’s long ignored and discounted experiences. The poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, for example, did so vividly. The exclusions of the life of the mind were now asserting themselves.

As I thought about trying to write poetry, I asked myself what I had to lose. Maybe I would try to write and find that I couldn’t. Or find that I could, but it was bad. Or it would be viable. I needed to learn how to do this. A friend who was a poet suggested that, given my long immersion in literature, I already knew quite a bit about how to do it. That sounded almost Platonic (we are born with knowledge but have to discover that we have it). My friend was right. Greek and Latin literature had taught me to be concise; from Horace I learned understatement, irony, syntactic wit, and that neat trick of ending a poem with a vivid sensory image.

Where did I belong? Much as I admired classic meters and forms, I wanted something other than tradition. Much free verse I was now reading struck me as too free. Eventually, my work would fall somewhere in between, a kind of order through rhetoric, as Marie Ponsot, whose workshops I was privileged to attend, would tell me.

People spoke of “finding your voice.” I seemed to have many voices, and after being silenced for so long, they were all clamoring. And so began the process of hearing the music, feeling the rhythms, modulating and culling everything that might become part of a poem. Learning a craft takes many years, and I have often had the sense other poets also speak of, that a poem is never finished. But each poem evolves organically, from germ cell to complex organism. Poets nurture the process, are midwives to the birth.

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author photoText(isles), Nancy Kassell’s first book of poetry, was published by Dos Madres Press in 2013. Poems in this collection appeared in BORDERLANDS, Notre Dame Review, Salamander, and elsewhere, and in several anthologies. Her chapbook “Be(longing” will be published by Dos Madres this year. Her translation from the Polish (with Anita Safran), of “Non omnis moriar,” by Zuzanna Ginczanka, the first English translation of this poem, appeared on AGNIOnline and will be published in the Posen Foundation’s 2017 volume of the “Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization.” Kassell lives in Brookline, MA. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Bonnefoy, Grae, and Moore: New Poetry at AGNI!

We’ve got great new poetry up on the main AGNI website!

“This low door is quite familiar, by the way. It reminds them of their childhood home, and of the big enclosure at the end of the garden where in the evening, when everything turned ominous with shadows and cries, they liked to take refuge before they were called in for dinner.”
“The Low Door,” Yves Bonnefoy, translated from the French by Hoyt Rogers

“Now I grasp that the house isn’t of this world—that it was laid out in another era, elsewhere. And I can almost see beings from that elsewhere grouped around a table.”
“At the Dawn of Time,” Yves Bonnefoy, translated from the French by Hoyt Rogers

“And be reborn? Not as a naiad. No. I want feathers
& dark. Let me be the hunter.”
“Lethe,” Tanya Grae

“There’s no sleeping through the fireworks,
but after, in the absence, the whole night rings
from possibility.”
“Mating Season,” Tanya Grae

“‘You can’t have everything,’ they say. But the problem is
you do.”
“The Problem,” Jim Moore

“The old woman in the black dress
is there at the harbor, waiting for someone in need.
She leads me to a dark room, brings cold water in a bucket.”
“Say Forty-Eight Years Have Passed,” Jim Moore


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Stanislavski in the Ghetto

by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

When I graduated from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, I stopped writing stories because I felt like I had nothing to say. And I was right.

I pursued writing in the first instance in search of nothing less than artistic truth. But my apprentice stories felt overly-constructed, hollow, false. If I couldn’t bring realism to my work, then why write?

I wouldn’t write a story for months. Post-program and concerned with basic problems like making rent, I was dangerously close to reverting to what I had been earlier in life: a writer who didn’t write. Then the voices came.

The paradox of every work of fiction is that the author knows more than her protagonist but not quite as much. You, the writer, create the character, of course. But successful characters often have qualities, experiences, and beliefs that you don’t. While many of my narrators don’t look or sound like me, the same holds true for countless writers, including icons like Toni Morrison, who had no problem writing complex males such as Milkman Dead, or Charles Dickens, who was said to have performed his characters’ accents and mannerisms in the mirror to make sure he got them right.

When I returned to writing, I felt depleted. But I didn’t want to give up. And living meant fighting. So when I sat at my laptop and stared at a blank screen, I didn’t gin up a high-concept idea or meticulously sketch a five-scene story arc. I listened.

The voices were those of people I knew or the voices of people who I saw around my hometown, New Orleans, and thought I knew. Voices: a dozen voices, a thousand of them, a million. I let the most persuasive voice in my head take the mic. He was a fourteen-year-old prostitute who catered to tourists visiting the French Quarter. I never spoke to anyone like him in real life. But I observed boys like him. He was uneducated, but smart. He didn’t like tap dancing as a cover to avoid being arrested, but he had hungry siblings at home and dreams of escaping the trap-life he had been born into.

Other voices manifested. Figures with unexplored lives waiting in the mist, their eyes on me, their hands reaching down. By then, I must have read thirty stories about twenty-somethings going to lake houses or cabins in the woods only to get into fights with their significant others before one of them disappeared. But I never read anything about the kids I grew up with. I never read about the kids I saw on street corners when they should have been in school. I never read about the kids who went to jail because they weren’t cut out to work as maids or dishwashers.

In New Orleans, our schools are nearly as segregated as they were before Brown v. Board of Education. Unemployment in our African-American community is multiple times the national average. As a city in the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated nation of the world, we imprison anything brown that breathes. I’m trying not to be hyperbolic, but making the point that lake houses and cabins in woods don’t speak to the authentic experiences of the children of my city.

Tweedy, the child narrator of my story “The Children of New Orleans” that appeared in AGNI issue 83, was born from these feelings of separateness, desperation, and oppression. In a city where being black and getting arrested for possession of marijuana could mean many years in jail, I occasionally had this thought: “they’re out to get us, all of us.” It was Tweedy who called out from some time in the future and told me that she was last one, the only black child free on the streets of her New Orleans. She wasn’t a criminal or a freedom fighter. She was five.

Someone much smarter than me once said that the act of writing while black is a political act. But the idea is broader than race. I believe the principle is true of all groups who don’t have access to the full panoply of human rights. It applies to women, people in the LGBT community, religious minorities, immigrants, etc. But I’ll admit there’s something ludicrous writing a short story about racism, fascism, and resistance from the POV of a small child. Tweedy knows nothing of the civil rights movements of the twentieth century. She doesn’t understand what death is. She can’t spell—or even say—fascism.

So why select her to tell the story? Because it is her story.

Of all the voices in the mist, Tweedy spoke loudest. I simply played transcriptionist.

Which leads to the question of voice and dialect. One of the hardest novels I ever loved was Their Eyes Were Watching God by the genius Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was a trained anthropologist, and she interviewed real people, recording their voices. It was no surprise that she used full dialect in her masterpiece. Hurston’s characters drop “g”s from the ends of their words, they use colloquial terms, and the text itself often approximates the actual sounds of the speakers’ homegrown speech patterns through spelling. (“Course, talkin’ don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh can’t do nothin’ else.”)

But that presentation of dialect isn’t for everyone. And there’s a point at which language obscures more than it reveals. Whereas the character tells the story, the author transcribes. The transcriptionist has the right to control things like spelling and punctuation. Why? Because a well-told story is as limpid as it is true.

And too, in the wrong hands, full dialect can be not only hard to understand, but also insulting. In the minstrels of the olden days, black characters were presented using modes of speech meant to reinforce their perceived lack of humanity and intelligence. The use of dialect was often inaccurate, too. This means the trick of using dialect is to offer up a language that is truthful but humble. Tweedy is extremely young and, other than a few home lessons, has no education to speak of. But she’s wise beyond her years and as observant as a detective.

The work of transcription is one that classically trained actors know from their studies. Constantin Stanislavski said many things. He advocated for using one’s own emotions to create true portrayals. Then he pushed relearning basic physical behavior, like walking, in search of realism. Later, he embraced both techniques. Then neither. But his system really boils down to “do what works.” I’m not Tweedy nor will I ever be. But I can listen to her.

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Maurice Carlos Ruffin Author Photo BW
photo by Vaughn D. Taylor

Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Callaloo, Massachusetts Review, Redivider, Green Mountains Review, The Pinch Journal, Unfathomable City: a New Orleans atlas edited by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedecker, and Situate Magazine. He is the winner of the 2014 Iowa Review Fiction Award, the 2014 So to Speak Journal Short Story Award and the 2014 William Faulkner Competition for Novel in Progress. He is a graduate of the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop and a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.


Feeding Grounds

by Mary Gilliland

It was mid-December, there had not yet been a frost, roses still bloomed in the sandswept front yards of Cape Cod. We were deep into our seven-month residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. We lived two blocks from the bay, where the sun rises, and less than two miles from the ocean, where it sets. As if to remind us we were living with the tides, a storm during December’s syzygy full moon swept away a waterfront restaurant and sent the seaweed washing along Commercial Street.

And we lived with the tides of creativity, twenty writers and visual artists selected each year, given a living space (and in the case of the visual artists a large studio), a small monthly stipend, and best of all, the gift of time. We had been awarded time to pursue our individual work as we saw fit—a bunch of creative oddballs free to be ourselves and able to draw on each other’s company and inspiration. In my journal one day I wrote “During this week of revising, I’ve felt the most light and free ever—in adulthood, in adolescence, in late childhood.”

Light, no metaphor on the Lower Cape, inspires both visions and canvasses, illumines the air, reflects off the water, permeates the bones. It can wake you and break you. Blessings like this are the kind for which poets are grateful.

Provincetown’s ecology is fragile. It borders the feeding grounds of the humpback whales at nearby Stellwagen Bank, where legend said the major part of the waste from the Manhattan Project was dumped; it is bordered by shifting parabolic dunes which can move 90’ per year and would have buried the town by now had folks not channeled an outlet for Pilgrim Lake and planted dune grass and dune grass and dune grass. And the Pilgrims—Plymouth, across the bay, has since stolen the show, but the Pilgrims first dropped anchor in P’town harbor and while staying there six weeks celebrated the first Thanksgiving. They deforested the sandbar. They were the first whites to show up since Leif Ericson and his crew in 1003.

I can tell you the questions most frequently asked about my Provincetown experience: Did you write a lot? The answer: No more than usual, if you count by finished pages, but every part of me was writing. Was it difficult being separated from your partner? I have never been more lonely, nor more joyous. Are you looking forward to going back to work? But I’ve been at work. The response to one other frequent question—Did the setting influence your writing? is a simple yes, for the landscape is so unequivocal that ironic answers trail into silence.

I walked along the tideline, around the dunes, in the one deciduous grove known as the Beech Wood, where once or twice I crossed paths with Mary Oliver. I talked with forest rangers from the National Seashore and cetacean researchers from the Center for Coastal Studies. I learned about my feet. My routines of walking and yoga and a disciplined study of modern Greek exercised body and mind. Then the soul could make best use of the several hours of fully attentive composing that are possible in an average day. I dreamed. I slept with paper in my bed and woke reaching for the pen. I abandoned the computer revising to which I had grown accustomed, which had seemed so convenient for about five years. Its convenience left other conveniences in the poem—stray bits of sentimentality, hyperbole, extra words and other forms of untruth. My daily mantic activity of reciting aloud as my pen flared across the page again and again from the beginning of the poem, taking it from the top, brought me back to the child who was publishing her verses at eight and who had too quickly, by adapting to praise, learned to lie. My consciousness, sharp editor, directive will, audience awareness, receded before the essence of each poem. I remembered the reason I had started doing this work: love.

My fellow FAWC Fellows hailed from Hawaii to Poland, ranged in age from 24 to 44, and refused in as many ways as possible to be categorized. Some were novelists, some were painters. Some kept a grueling and undeviating work schedule. Some let the reservoir fill after years of labors. Some were regulars at the Holiday Inn’s free nightly movie, with reel to reel projection and a weekly change of program. Some played ping pong in the Common Room every night at 2:00 a.m.

Living alongside visual artists was a rich experience. I witnessed incredible art created from driftwood and sea flotsam. I learned about sculptors who work on installations rather than separate pieces, and I collaborated with sculptor Beverly Ress to produce a page for that year’s Provincetown Arts. With more than one creative mind employed, the need for clear verbal communication obviates most of the soloist’s niggling questions and doubts. We found collaboration to be half the work and twice the play of individual creation.

The Fine Arts Work Center was founded in 1968 by a group of eminent artists and writers to encourage and support emerging talent. I know of no comparable place—FAWC Fellows are free to plan and pursue their own activities; they are given a peaceful, supportive environment in which to work; the residency period is long enough to call it real time.

At the end of April when I was packing to move home to Ithaca, Stanley Kunitz arrived to open his house for the season. When I feel discouraged, this poet’s lifework restores my perspective on the vitality and the necessity of the art. Since I was the 1990-91 Stanley Kunitz Fellow, I made a bold phone call to ask if he needed help in his garden. For a few hours we puttered, the light shifted, the gulls busied themselves watching the tideline. Pruning the ivy while Stanley, one of the founders of the Work Center, watered flower beds, I was absorbed in the work of poetry.

(Excerpted from an essay that originally appeared in The Bookpress v.1, no.1 (1991) Ithaca NY and in the FAWC newsletter, spring 1992)

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Gilliland_photoMary Gilliland’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals and been awarded prizes nationally and internationally. She resides in Ithaca, New York where she was formerly Director of Cornell’s Writing Walk-In Service and taught writing. Among her singular accomplishments are a poetry workshop at Namgyal Monastery, the Dalai Lama’s North American seat, and a poetry reading at the Al Jazeera International Film Festival. Married to the poet and artist Peter Fortunato, with whom she has refurbished an ancient house in the woods at the edge of civilization, she is writing the poetry memoir We Are All Immortals. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

The Theory of Montage

by Javier Zamora

My poem “Montage with Mangos” (AGNI Issue 83) began after watching the Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin (1925) for the first time. Battleship is Sergei Eisentein’s most well-known film and it embodies the newly theorized Theory of Montage, penned by Einsentein’s teacher, Lev Kuleshov. After watching it, I was struck by the emotion created by the juxtaposition of images to the point that I had to write a poem.

After the first draft of “Montage with Mangoes,” I researched the “Theory of Montage,” and walked away with many gems, particularly this one: Lev Kuleshov believed that film could transcend space and time. Kuleshov was one of the first directors to juxtapose images/scenes of different physical places, far away countries, etc., in order to create an emotional response. ¿Isn’t that what immigration does? The montage, in a way, can be viewed as the first depiction of the hurt immigrating creates. It’s the reason why time and space in my poem may seem confusing, or juxtaposed. I wanted to narrow the gap between my parents’ ages when they left (Dad, 20, and Mom, 24) and my own (26). I’m older than they were when they left. We all haven’t returned to what we left. That land has changed, the friends we know have grown, died, or left; the only way we can possibly return to what we left behind is through our memories.

The Odessa Steps scene begins with foods being unloaded from sailboats; this image reminded me of the fishing boats that would unload at our town’s pier. Their merchandise was later transported to El Mercado at the center of town. Mom would walk there almost every afternoon, I was stuck to her hand, everyone knew us. When she left for this country, I walked with Abuelita. This image of the market, of geese, pigs, eggs, bought and passed around, was edited out of my poem’s later drafts. What remained was the image of preparing flor de izote in order to cook them with scrambled eggs one rainy afternoon when two-foot deep water surrounded our house.

Since flor de izote is also the Salvadoran national flower, there’s room for interpretation of what the “plucking” means. Friends have told me that the flowers could be viewed as immigrants plucked from their homes and thrown into “the bowl.” Subconsciously, maybe it’s why I wrote the poem after watching Battleship—the crowd is fleeing the soldiers, the oppression of the Czar, fleeing from war. The poem’s form was also borrowed from the stampede. I wondered how I could recreate the force and speed with which Einsentein’s scene moves toward the end: the motion of the soldiers descending the steps, paused by short images of boots stepping on hands, faces, etc. One way I tried to recreate that method was by using long sentences, with short sentences in between.

To Russian filmmakers, the film didn’t begin with the shooting of reels. It was born through the editing, through the assembling. There’s a longing for time, there’s a longing for space in “Montage with Mangos” and all of my poetry, but these distances can be mended through editing, through cut and paste. I hope, through the act of writing, to reassemble the pieces of my childhood, my country, that were shattered by the act of migrating.

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AuPicAnaRJavier Zamora was born in El Salvador and migrated to the US when he was nine. He is a 2016-2018 Wallace Stegner Fellow and holds fellowships from CantoMundo, Colgate University, MacDowell, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Yaddo. The recipient of the 2016 Barnes and Noble Writer for Writers Award, his poems appear or are forthcoming in APR, Ploughshares, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, and elsewhere. His first poetry collection is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press Fall 2017. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

“Blood & Water”: Poets Writing Nonfiction

by Kelle Groom

I’ve always written both poetry and prose. But in my writing program, there wasn’t a nonfiction track. So I took poetry and fiction undergraduate workshops—my fiction almost always autobiographical. As graduate students, we chose a concentration—poetry or fiction. I chose poetry.

My first three books were poetry collections. The first book, Underwater City, deals with many of the concerns of my memoir—my son’s adoption and subsequent death from leukemia, violence, environmental issues, and alcoholism. In the poems, my concerns about environmental hazards and leukemia clusters in Brockton, Massachusetts are presented in glimpses. My longing for my son—to learn something about his life and death, to know him in whatever way possible—are moments in the poems. The desire to know more set me in motion to do research and expand on these concerns in prose. I had the sense that if I began, the writing would take me somewhere. The writing itself could catalyze change.

Grace Paley, in her story, “A Conversation with my Father,” said, “Everyone real or invented deserves the open destiny of life.” I’d kept journals from the time period of my memoir. For many years, I wrote nightly. I had transcribed conversations, details, my voice and the tone of those days. I treated the journals as documentation for the revision process, a source for dialogue and facts, and only occasionally as a spur to memory.

As a writer of memoir, I’m interested in what gets remembered. While I was generally familiar with the journal contents, I kept them in another room while I wrote. Because every time I read them, they sunk me. They felt static and reductive. As if my life and my son’s life were without the possibility of hope, and we were imprisoned in those diary entries. Reading them was like watching someone drown. It was important for me to write from the perspective of the present, and to remain open to the possibility that, at the time of those events, and in the intervening years, I might not have really known what had happened. To believe that if I could see it new, something might be revealed. I wanted to believe that Grace Paley’s open destiny of life was possible for us, through writing.

As I wrote, I also had the desire not to be reminded through the journals, initially, of things I might have forgotten. First, I wanted to simply write and see what was unforgettable. Later, it was fascinating to consider why an “incorrect” memory had stuck, and to include that in the memoir. As a writer, I love these mistakes, and what they can tell me. I want to bring the reader along with me, through to the discovery of what happened and why it gets remembered the way it does.

Outside of my own experience, there are things that were told to me, that for many years I believed to be true. In part, it’s because I was unable to ask direct questions about my son’s life and death, so that much of what I knew was third or fourth hand, overheard. Guesses that over time began to feel like facts. Writing the memoir catalyzed me into asking direct questions, and I learned that much of what I’d thought was fact, was not. So the reader travels that course with me as I discover the truth.

In my new manuscript, How to Cure a Fright, I continue to question long-held beliefs. In this book, I’m interested in the idea of home. What is home? Where is it? It’s driven by the need to know how to live with fear and uncertainty. To write the book, I traveled for four years, living in places I’d never been, where I knew no one. Hoping to step into the open destiny of life, to do the things I feared, and come out on the other side, changed.

Poetry taught me to go into the moment. To stay there and really see what’s happening. When I was a student, Rita Dove, visited my school. And I asked her how to write a lyric poem. She said to begin at the moment you can’t turn away. I think of her advice often, in writing both poetry and memoir. There had been this false, forced closing—a silence over the events of our lives. My purpose was to open things up, and go down into the darkest places and, through writing, find out what happened. The tools that I took with me were from poetry.

The first memoir chapter I wrote is about midway through the book, “How to Make a Shoe” (originally published in AGNI Issue 67). I’d been struggling to find a way into writing the memoir that wouldn’t be a recounting of what happened, a collection of anecdotes. I needed a way to discover, instead of to tell. Early on, I’d mentioned to a friend that I knew so little about what happened to my son, so little about the city that I believed had made him sick, how could I write about it. He said, “Can’t you just start with the things you do know?” I thought it would be useful to step to the side of my particular story, and focus on its environment. So, I started with facts about the city where I was born which was also the city where my son lived, where he got sick. When I couldn’t ask anyone questions about my son, I learned the history of shoemaking in this city. It gave me a language, a vocabulary, a way to talk about grief. I couldn’t get at it head on. Shoes were my way into the book.

In memoir, I’m concerned with various subjects, but I’d like to just look at one of those here. For many years, I felt that there was something wrong with the city of Brockton. I had a lot of anecdotal evidence. But I didn’t know how pursue this intuitive feeling about the health of the city and possible links to environmental illness. I wasn’t an investigative journalist. I didn’t think I had the right.

But the spaciousness of memoir gave me room to start asking questions. I realized that asking questions in itself could be enough. I didn’t have to have the answers. I visited Massachusetts to do research, and in staying with friends of a friend, learned that their colleague had written an essay on Brockton, in a book on the Rust Belt that I admired. I felt ridiculous calling him, with just intuition on my side. I was almost frantic with nervousness telling him my concerns. But he’d said, “You’re not the only one to ask about this.” He advised me to show up in person, and look around. Brockton, he said, never disappoints.

After writing my first essay on the subject and publishing it in AGNI, I was contacted by another resident of the city, a student researching the same subject. She’d read my essay, and connected me to other researchers. I gained the assistance of a public health professional who helped me better understand the research.

I learned that Brockton ranks in the “top 10 most extensively environmentally overburdened communities in Massachusetts and “grossly exceeds” the statewide average of environmental hazards, with 347 hazardous waste sites in the city—“an average of over 16 hazardous waste sites per square mile.” I learned that cancer “now kills more American children that any other single disease, for the first time in history.” But I also learned leukemia clusters are very difficult to determine. And that rates of childhood leukemia incidence in Brockton were unavailable for the year of my son’s death, and for two years prior. The year he died, the Superfund site was cleaned up in his county. So, I don’t know if the city was to blame for my son’s leukemia and death. The research and writing were a road I followed. A space to ask questions and gain clarity and not be silent.

My own passivity is a rudder in the memoir, the inability to take action. My book, my life, couldn’t go forward until I tried to talk about things that had been kept silent. There’s another piece to the memoir, about becoming a writer. Even as a child, I knew I had a voice when I wrote. I felt heard. But it was a life of great interiority. The struggle was to learn to live, to take action, and communicate in the world.

The prose didn’t begin as a memoir. But as poems. And then, as these very short essays. But as the essays accumulated, I realized they were chapters and that I was writing a memoir. I found it thrilling to write a memoir in prose, and to approach it as I would a poem. To try to create a world and try to stop time. To see what can’t be said and try to find a way to say it.

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Kelle Ptown to Agni blogKelle Groom is the author of a memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Simon & Schuster), a Barnes & Noble Discover selection, New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and a Library Journal Best Memoir. An NEA Fellow in Prose, her work has appeared in AGNI, American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, The New Yorker, New York Times, and Ploughshares. Her 4th poetry collection, Spill, is forthcoming from Anhinga Press. She is MFA faculty at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe, and Director of the Summer Workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.