This interview is 7,000 words
or about 12 printed pages long
¶ Kent Johnson: Chris, you have devoted years to the translation of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronymic poetry. A good deal of the Pessoa you have done, in fact, has never appeared in English — I’m referring not only to exciting work by the major heteronyms, but also by a couple of other Pessoan figures still completely unknown to readers in English. You have collected this labor of love into a massive book — one that would be the most complete Pessoa poetic anthology in English to date. When will this appear?
Chris Daniels: First of all, Dana Stevens helped me out immensely in the beginning, so I want to give her the credit she deserves, here and now. Unless Dana contacts me and tells me to leave her out of it, the Caeiro and Campos books will be credited to Dana and myself. It’s only fair. Other people have helped me out, in many different ways — Rovena Mafouz, who started it all, Dan Strongin, Richard Zenith, Erin Moure, Pat Reed, AS Bessa, Amelia Pinto, Norma Cole, Ben Hollander, yourself — the list could go on almost indefinitely! — but Dana put in a lot of time and effort in the beginning. She’s the one who really helped me find my way, and I’m very grateful. However, since final decisions are always mine, and the real grunt work has always been mine, I’ll go ahead and call these Pessoa translations “mine.”
My Pessoa translations are just as much a heap of scraps as the contents of the famous trunk. While I certainly will be leaving out things here and there, I refuse, in the texts I do translate, to make any sweeping editorial decisions, which always distort the true nature of Pessoa’s heteronymic poetry by normalizing, condensing and cutting; I’m insisting that it be published in all its fissured confusion. Reading Pessoa in a critical edition can be maddening. He’s even more a poet of variants than Emily Dickinson. His celebrated clarity and simplicity are interspersed with false starts, incoherent marginalia, and drunken scrawl that threaten to overwhelm everything... So I allow the uneven, fragmentary odes of Campos to be uneven and fragmentary, and the unfinished poems by Caeiro to be unfinished. It’s only fair that Anglophones be able to experience Pessoa in a way that at least approaches the Lusophone experience. Until this is possible, our understanding of Pessoa will be deeply flawed and his stature as one of the truly great modernist poets will be perceived imperfectly.
Many of the translations aren’t quite yet up to my standards, which are probably way too high, and there’s an awful lot still to be done. I’m more or less ready with Alberto Caeiro, but I still have to finish Álvaro de Campos and I’ve barely started with Ricardo Reis, by far the most difficult to translate of the three major heteronymic poets. I’ll only translate 40 or so of the 180-odd odes of Reis, because they tend to be pretty samey. And then there are the possible heteronyms...
¶ KJ: Possible heteronyms?
CD: Well, maybe “potential” would be the better word. This is a perhaps loopy pet idea of mine that has to do with the contents of the three issues of Orpheu, a poetry journal edited by various members of Pessoa’s circle, including Pessoa himself and his great friend, Mário de Sá-Carneiro. It’s clear that his friends knew very well what Pessoa was up to. At least two of them were taking the first steps toward playing along with Pessoa by inventing proto-heteronyms.
In the second issue of Orpheu (1915), there are a number of sonnets by a “male or female invalid who says that he or she is named Violante de Cysneiros.” This poet dedicates two or three poems to “Álvaro de Campos, the master.” One of Pessoa’s circle later claimed that he’d written the poems... The third issue, which was confiscated by the censors in 1917 (I believe) and survives only as an incomplete copy of printer’s proofs, includes a fairly long poem called “Beyond Another Ocean” by one C. Pacheco. This poem is dedicated to Alberto Caeiro. There’s a translation of it with a brief explanatory note at Fascicle: http:/ / www.fascicle.com/ issue01/ Poets/ pessoa1.htm. This poem may not have been written by Pessoa, but it has been ascribed to him for a long time; the fact that it was dedicated to Caeiro a decade before a single poem by Caeiro appeared in print, makes me wonder.
I don’t know what anyone else thinks about all this, or if there’s been any critical speculation on the subject, but it seems to me that having someone like Pessoa in their midst probably delighted his friends. If the Orpheu group had continued (three of them died very young, including Sá-Carneiro), then there might have arisen a whole system of heteronyms invented by writers other than Pessoa. I’m researching it right now, trying to come to some kind of a conclusion, but I guess I’m just going to have to translate all three issues of Orpheu...
Be that as it may, it’s a long, painstaking process. Good translations take time, and are never quite finished. I really ought to respect and account for all of Pessoa’s variants as well as all the possibilities and potentialities, which means there should be extensive notes: by no means a thrilling prospect for me, so I’ll either do it in fits and starts over the course of a decade, or leave it for braver souls. The latter seems more likely.
¶ In any case, what you’re aiming to accomplish, that’s a tall order of publication... I mean there is so much material. How to get it out there?
CD: According to data published by the American Booksellers Association, 874 out of the 185,000 titles published in the US in 2004 were translations of literature for adult readers. That’s a shameful 0.4 percent. How many of those books contained poetry? Let’s be overly generous: say, ten percent of 0.4 percent? Do the math, and you’ll understand why no publisher is going to commit to publishing upwards of 1000 pages, even more if bilingual, of a Lusophone poet translated by some self-taught guy, some ex-dope-fiend-layabout fellow-traveler with no graduate degree and no reputation in academe. That’s a natural fact, and it says a lot about the pathetic state of literary publishing in our country.
If anybody publishes the whole thing in book form, it’ll be me. A publisher was interested a few years ago, but that fell through in a rather diaphanous way that remains unresolved, though most likely it had something to do with copyrights and grant money. No matter. Print-on-demand will allow me to publish small print runs of everything I’ve done, and distribute the books to friends and acquaintances. It’s clear that I have to do this myself. The accountants pretending to be editors at the big houses, and even at many of the university presses, haven’t got a single clue, the poor things. All too many of the small presses are victims of extreme North American chauvinism and cultural myopia.
All of Pessoa’s writings fell into public domain on 1/ 1/ 2006. The first volume, the complete Caeiro, most likely will go to press in the fall of 2006. I’m starting to work on a new website, which will allow me to revise and expand indefinitely. I’m intrigued by Richard Zenith’s suggestion that the variants can be accounted for by allowing the reader to click on a word, a phrase, a line or even a whole poem, and have the variants appear in a pop-up, or fade in and out on the screen. That’s a hell of a lot of work that I don’t know how to do, so I’ll begin very simply, and hope that some tech-literate lover of Pessoa will offer to help out. Maybe a CD-Rom, eventually, when it’s all finished... all this depends on time and energy, of course, and I don’t have a whole lot of the former.
¶ Talk a bit more about Pessoa. Why is he such an important poet? He is famous for his heteronyms, of course. But what are these, really. And do you think Pessoa’s example — his weird departures from conventional authorship — holds out anything of interest for contemporary American poets in terms of practice?
CD: I better remind you once again that I wasn’t trained in literary theory in academia, and that I am an artist through and through. I never learned to wrangle the jargon.
A heteronym is a fictional writer that may or may not reflect or refract some aspect of the personality and desires of the inventing writer, who isn’t trying very hard, if at all, to hide the fact that the heteronym is fictive.
A huge amount of criticism — though little in English — has been devoted to heteronymy, but it’s not at all difficult to understand. Imagine a huge novel (think Romaine Rolland) about a coterie of writers in a particular time and place. All the writers have different styles and concerns and social backgrounds and they write all different kinds of things: belle-lettrist prose, poetry, philosophy, political analysis, light humor, jokes, crossword puzzles, fiction, plays, journalism. The novel includes all of their writings. Take away the trappings of a traditional novel — description, plot, setting, characterization — and leave only the writings of the fictional writers. That’s the easiest way to understand heteronymy. Of course, one can conceive of a heteronym who appears in the world as the author of a real and traditionally constructed novel!
Pessoan heteronymy is complicated by a so-called semi-heteronym, Bernardo Soares, whom Pessoa called “a mutilation of my own personality.” There is also the orthonym, a fictional writer named Fernando Pessoa who is not actually Fernando Pessoa, but an invented writer with the author’s name. Often enough, it’s impossible to know exactly which is the “real” Fernando Pessoa.
But overall, it’s quite simple. The confusion doesn’t come from Pessoa, really, but from his readers.
Why is Pessoa important? An obvious reason is that it’s impossible to fetishize his authorship. No one knows for sure which Pessoa is “the real Pessoa,” and his biography is largely uneventful. That, and the notoriously irreconcilable artistic and political contradictions contained in the famous “trunk full of people,” to use Tabucchi’s phrase, cause a lot of confusion among readers and critics who simply can’t figure out what to do with a poet who refuses to “be himself,” who doesn’t buy into the stunted, dreamy, hyper-liberal, private property-based pseudo-unification beloved of artistic and political reactionaries.
Heteronymy/ orthonymy is a very effective tool for gaining a degree of artistic freedom from the myth of the monolithic personal identity, what some people call the “subject-position,” shoveled into us from day one by the societies we live in. In our country, the US, poets are generally expected to be trustworthy expositors of emotional truth. They are supposed to write about their lives in a way that causes the reader to feel moved and become spiritually enriched. Poets are supposed to “have a voice,” to “find their voice” in order to become transmitters of “universal human emotion,” which mostly means the so-called values we were raised with and cannot question without feeling a greater or lesser degree of discomfort.
I don’t know, Kent, it’s very complex and contradictory, this problem of identity. I try to be very careful about it. All too often “Identity” serves as an unbridgeable chasm between us. My whiteness, maleness and heterosexuality (the three hegemonic subject-positions) allow me to be very frank about my thoughts and feelings, as long as I keep to certain ritualized modes of communication, and stay firmly in my privileged place. If a woman, a queer person (it’s very clear that Pessoa was bi-sexual), a person of color, a member of an oppressed segment of society speaks out honestly and clearly about these things, it causes great consternation in conservatives and liberals alike. If anybody at all speaks passionately about certain things, there’s always somebody around who’s perfectly willing to take a couple of phrases out of context and start slinging mud.
¶ You were talking about heteronymy as a vehicle for gaining a greater degree of artistic freedom. I think you touch on something important there. And it seems to me that Pessoa’s gesture of anti-identity is full of untried possibilities for poetic exploration. But in our literary culture, traditional and experimental alike, the notion of “finding one’s voice,” or else finding some kind of formal disposition that becomes one’s authorial “signature,” still appears to hold considerable sway.
CD: No question... Pessoa certainly wasn’t interested in “finding his own voice.” In his refusal to submit his humanity to worn-out notions of single-voiced — or single-named — literary transmission, he became probably the first truly multifarious poet. That in itself is a measure of his greatness. Another would be that he wrote very clearly and simply about things that have bewildered people for as long as people have been capable of bewilderment, things that tend to be hard for us to put into words. Yet another would be that, despite the political reaction that does crop up more than occasionally, his very best poetry, like all poetry that’s worth my time, is profoundly, compassionately outward-looking.
¶ There is a popular notion, it seems, that Pessoa’s heteronyms have some kind of pure, dictated origin, an origin beyond the usual messiness of the making of poems, with all its recursive modifications, adaptations, and concessions. Of course, Pessoa’s quasi-mystical accounts of Caeiro’s emergence have fueled this idea. You seem to be saying it’s quite opposite in the main: that the “black trunk” of Pessoa’s personalities was actually forged through a difficult, often frustrated and failed, struggle with writing proper — that this struggle is the very substance and interactivity of these personalities, in a sense?
CD: Yes. In the first place, the manuscript record shows beyond all doubt that a pure, dictated origin is a myth. I doubt many Lusophone readers believe Pessoa’s self-propagated myth these days; decent critical editions destroy the myth.
The myth states that Pessoa wrote the bulk of Caeiro’s 49 poems in O Guardador dos Rebanhos in a single day, but the dates on the bulk of the 20 dated poems cover a period of ten days, March 4-14, 1914. One of the poems is dated 7/ 6/ 1914, and another is dated 4/ 12/ 1919. There’s no doubt that 1914 was a very productive year for Pessoa, but it didn’t go the way he said it went.
In the famous letter of January, 1935 (ten months before he died), which introduced the myth, Pessoa makes himself out to be a superhuman producer of texts. He claims to have written around 50 poems on that fabled day in 1914. Now, the man worked one day a week as a translator of business correspondence and lived frugally. He had a lot of free time, was unmarried, had very few interests or vices outside of reading, writing, drinking and tobacco, and he was a complete graphomane, but after 1915 or so, he had a very hard time completing things. In a poem by Campos from 1934, he laments his inability to finish all but two of his seven long Sensationist odes. “Struggle with writing proper”? Most definitely!
¶ Like Yeats and Spicer, who also made claims for dictation, he was attracted to the occult, right? Maybe there’s a psychological connection of some kind between his Caeiro “dictation” and that general affinity?
CD: Definitely. Though Pessoa was an inveterate practical joker, there is no doubt at all that he was deeply and sincerely into the occult for all of his adult life. Maybe he wanted to suggest supernatural intervention, or a special sensitivity to happenings on another plane. But I just don’t know and nobody can. We can only make informed guesses.
Perhaps this struggle came about precisely because he didn’t buy into the old, tattered notion of authorial ownership, but couldn’t quite completely give it up. Nevertheless, he didn’t seem to care too much or too often about finding a single, masterful style and flogging it to death for the next 40 years — although he surely could have, because in terms of sheer chops, the guy was capable of almost anything. The overwhelming majority of orthonymic poetry (and there’s a lot of it, at least as much as the heteronymic poetry) is in traditional forms. Much of it is gorgeous. There’s irrefutable evidence that the poet writing as “Pessoa si-mesmo” saw himself as the modern Camões, a kind of reincarnation of Portugal’s great Baroque national poet. Camões was a great maker of myths.
In a very real way, his plans were megalomaniacal. He planned many things that never got off the ground, like a treatise on ancient Greek wrestling and a translation of Paradise Lost, as well as things he never came close to finishing, like a verse Faust-drama, various writings about neo-paganism — and the complete poems of Álvaro de Campos! All his plans and desires for his writing must surely have pulled him in many directions, which would have had an effect on his daily engagement with writing.
¶ It’s always struck me as incredibly weird that Pessoa, this disseminator of poetic personalities, is the word for “person” in Portuguese. But how do you begin to define a “person” and “poet” like him? There’s a sense in which he’s really the most authentic example — if the notion of authenticity can be applied to him — of the Anti-Poet...
CD: It gets even better when you consider that the word “pessoa,” like our word “person,” comes from the Latin word “persona,” which means “actor’s mask.” To make things even more excruciatingly delectable, Pessoa’s surname was originally spelled Pessôa. He deliberately took the circumflex off the “o” some time before September 4, 1916 and told a friend that in doing so he had just made a “big change” in his life. You just have to love the guy for that.
The first time I ever read translations of Caeiro in public, someone asked me, “This is anti-poetry, isn’t it?” I agreed.
The thing is, Pessoa is so incredibly contradictory that you can’t pin him down. Not even Pound is as contradictory as Pessoa. The instant you start thinking you have a handle on who he was, you’re lost. You start thinking Pessoa was a right-wing reactionary crackpot. Then you remember his poems and fragments in which he expresses such a great love and sympathy for the working people around him and his poems filled with the simple pleasure of walking and looking. You start thinking that Pessoa must have been insane. Then you remember that he was perfectly aware of what he was doing and wrote about it. “[I have] an inborn tendency to artistic lying.” He attempts to pathologize himself. “I do not know whether I am simply a hysteric, or whether I am more accurately a hysterico-neuraesthenic.” I don’t know whether or not Pessoa wanted to pin himself down, but it’s very clear that he couldn’t and he knew it. “Strictly speaking, I have no personality.” He didn’t try to reconcile his “human nature.” His inner contradictions are the raw material of his writing. On occasion, he tried, but never managed to codify a theory or a technique. When he finally began to theorize (ex post facto) in public, he prevaricated and this prevarication is the source of most of the Pessoan myth.
¶ Well, Whitman was one of his great heroes, of course — there’s de Campos’s amazing “Salutation to Walt Whitman.” And as Whitman himself famously says, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
CD: Yes, there’s that same acceptance of one’s contradictory nature, most definitely. Though unlike Whitman, whose poetry is a broad, hyper-democratic, eroticized expression of solidarity with all people and things, taken at face value Pessoa (who shares Whitman’s intense eroticization) seems to have struggled sincerely to achieve true multifariousness within himself. Whitman found pan-sexual spiritual communion on the expanding frontiers of the rising United States. In 1914, a time of insoluble imperialist crisis, Pessoa yearned to be “everybody, everywhere.” That’s a tall order and it’s no wonder he failed. He’s the most magnificent failure in world literature. Part of the magnificence of his failure is self-parodied in the fair amount of paper and ink he used up in his failed attempt to explain that the greatest artists, like Shakespeare and (of course, though he never quite says it) himself, are all failures.
¶ But towards the end he was trying to make it all cohere, right? Trying to find some kind of underlying unity to the huge accretion of disparate things?
CD: For sure. He knew he was on to something very big with the notion of heteronymy, but he didn’t live long enough to get it together. If he’d lived into his sixties or seventies, he probably would have organized what he set out to do and published a lot of it. But if the contradictions were in fact too much for him up until shortly before his death, then I’d say we’re very lucky, for otherwise we wouldn’t have the Pessoa whose heteronymy points the way to a cognition of personality as continuum. That conception is radically different from the bourgeois conception of homogenous personality which to date has reached its highest expression in the rigidly tripartite structure of the Freudian psyche, wielded by dogmatists addicted to pathologizing the slightest tic. His magnificent failure liberates his work from interpretive monopoly, and can also help liberate us when we allow his body of work to stand in all its incompleteness as a monument to human potential that marks the way to a future free of all forms of social and intellectual oppression.
There you have it. I have to repeat again that I’m not a theorist, but an artist. I have no doubt that what I’m saying is riddled with inconsistency and confusion. But I hope I’ve managed to communicate a number of principles that are nascent or growing in me.
¶ Well, some of the greatest art arises from inconsistency and confusion, as we know... It’s interesting to me, Chris, the notion, in your first answer, of the translator’s task as having something to do with resisting the pull to edit and “clarify.” It puts me in mind — though he was speaking in the first instance of matters specific to lexical and syntactic choices — of Walter Benjamin’s call, in his essay “The Task of the Translator,” for a literal rendering of the original. You seem to be taking Benjamin’s idea further, into the very archival body, as it were, of the work, into its partially veiled features of incompleteness and imperfection: as if the “afterlife” of the original can only be realized by sensing and then bringing forth (in ways that perhaps only translation can?) traces of the original’s effort — not excluding its marginalia, its rough spots, and so forth — to find its life in the first place... Am I right? Is this relevant to your work in translation?
CD: I can’t tell you how profoundly relevant it is. Anybody who translates should be familiar with Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” and Lawrence Venuti’s “The Translator’s Invisibility,” which is another essential text. We don’t really have the space to go fully into it. It’d be nice to be able to do so, one of these days.
Put very simply, I feel that I ought to try to translate the historical presence of Pessoa’s work, which is a big black trunk filled with papers that were once fastidiously arranged, but which were shuffled after his death. Nobody — and I mean nobody — knows exactly what he would have done if he’d lived past 47. All we can do is guess and make informed decisions. But that’s the task of textual scholars, who are willing to make some of those decisions for Pessoa. I’m unwilling to do that.
This doesn’t mean that I think there’s something wrong with the work of Richard Zenith, who combines hard textual scholarship with translation; he’s doing incredibly valuable work in making Pessoa accessible to Anglophone readers, and I admire greatly everything he’s done. But my task and Richard’s task are radically different and the difference can be best summed up by this quotation from Benjamin: “No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.”
And the following quotation from Benjamin’s essay is particularly relevant to me:
It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language. [emphases added]
In the past, I’ve imagined myself to be possessed by the work of another poet, but lately, more often I see it like this: when I translate, my labor is dependent upon the labor of another human being from another human culture. The social relationship is one of mutual dependence and is also driven by my commitment to a collective endeavor, which simultaneously unleashes into our poetic culture the labor of the translated poet and my labor as transcreator, to use Haroldo de Campos’ wonderful coinage. There’s a flowering of human potential on both sides, and in that sense, I think translation becomes a very high literary art, indeed.
At the same time, there’s an agonic relationship in which our language is besieged, stormed and conquered by the language of another culture as wielded by a writer within that culture. What am I doing if I resist? Am I right to think that I know what Clarice Lispector meant to write more than she herself? Am I to suppose that “A vida se me é” — a very strange, “untranslatable” sentence characterized by a confusing, ungrammatical use of reflexive pronouns with a verb of being — should be translated as “Life is itself for me,” which is a grossly exegetical domestication? “Life itselfs me” or “life is itselfed for me”; a pronoun becomes a verb; the disrupt exists in English and the reader is left wondering what the hell that means while understanding it perfectly. To paraphrase Benjamin, I could say that in this case the translation fits like a loose covering of transparent gauze, which allows the texture of Portuguese to show through the surface of English.
¶ The translation offers forth its doubled nature... So the translator’s job, I hear you saying, involves a keen listening for spells of conflict and contradiction between languages — even bending, when necessary, one’s own language into the grammar and syntax of another?
CD: I’m in dialectical relationship with any text I translate. Conflict and contradiction are quite common. I have to be careful not to translate like some arrogant, patronizing philistine of a colonial grandee who thinks he knows better than both writer and reader. I have to assume equality. Therefore, I mustn’t override the struggle against normalization implicit in a Lusophone writer’s use of language. For the most part, I’m only interested in writers who struggle against normalization. I have to respect that struggle and find a way to wage it in our language. The struggle is always waged both macrocosmically at the level of the whole piece of writing and microcosmically right on down to the phoneme. In the case of Pessoa, the struggle against normalization extends to the very physical condition of the contents of the famous trunk.
On the other hand — the way other hand! — as much as I love Benjamin’s essay, there exists in it a strain of mysticism. It’s true that in places he takes care to demystify his terminology, as in “The idea of life and afterlife in works of art should be regarded with an entirely un-metaphorical objectivity,” but that mysticism or poeticism, the royal robe, as beautiful as it is, goes against a feeling I have of myself as a worker in the arts, which must come from decades of laboring as a dishwasher, cook, house painter, ditch digger, furniture mover and stonemason’s helper. It’s a kind of nuts-and-bolts, bullheaded, deliberately cultivated bone-headedness. In a documentary, John Ford was once asked (by a critic in a Brooks Brothers suit and Ray-Bans) how he’d made one of his massive, sweeping shots. As I remember it, he adjusted his cowboy hat (or gimme hat, whatever it was) and spat disdainfully: “With a camera!” While I’m not anti-intellectual and I deplore Ford’s reactionary politics, I always liked that down-to-earth, craft-bound attitude toward art. It suits me very well.
¶ In addition to your work with Pessoa, you are one of the most prolific English-language translators of contemporary Brazilian poetry, a literary scene that in its competitive enthusiasms and controversies, from what I can tell, makes current American poetry look quite domesticated by comparison. I know there could be books written on the topic, but could you talk just a bit about contemporary poetic culture there, perhaps the impact, if any, recent American poetry has had in Brazil? What might our poetry have to gain from a deeper relationship with it?
CD: This is hard for me to talk about because I’m in the thick of it and have absolutely no critical distance from some of the poets I work with. I mean, I visit them in their houses for days on end, hang out in cafés, drive through the countryside, talk poetry and politics. I’m in contact with a number of people I’ve never met, who do good work, as well. I don’t want to leave anybody out, including our poets who have had relationships with poets in Brasil, you know? The question is almost too personal, but I’ll try to maintain critical distance... I apologize if I’ve forgotten to mention anybody I should have.
If art, like science, is a cognition of life, then it behooves artists to be curious about how other people make art elsewhere in the world, and, even more, to try to understand different peoples and their cultures through their arts, but not only through their arts, of course. My engagement with the poetry and poets of Brasil has led to a tremendous feeling of solidarity on my part, as well as a great deal of ever-increasing knowledge of Brasilian history and culture. I’m sure you’ve experienced something very similar with all your work translating poets and working as a teacher in Latin America.
Poets have a unique opportunity to engage with another culture through an art made with the greatest human invention of them all. Our languages, as Benjamin teaches us, are kin, just as all people are kin, regardless of the artificial boundaries foisted upon us by the owners of the world’s wealth. Monoglots have no idea what they’re missing. To tell the truth, I feel a little sorry for poets who never translate, or who translate without really understanding the implications of what they’re doing.
Brasil is a huge country. Its culture is very different from ours, but in some ways it’s also very similar. It’s an ex-slavocracy; the highest sophistication exists side by side with the lowest forms of ignorance and superstition, just like in the US. I think that as North Americans we should start trying to understand that América begins at the North Pole and ends in Antarctica. We are one people. The more we learn about each other, the better. Any poetic culture that is not ours can show us radically different ways of thinking about poetry. There are certain poets who could only have arisen in a particular culture. João Cabral de Melo Neto could only exist in Brasil. Our ignorance is a missed opportunity.
There are two prevailing images of Brasil in our country. One is a middlebrow exotic wonderland of carnaval, soccer, danceable popular music and alluring, available women and men of color wearing tiny bathing suits on the beach. Another is a tropical hell of endless violence and grim poverty. Both of these images reproduce nineteenth-century racist condescension. Neither of these images tell us anything close to the truth about the people of Brasil, and Brasilian poetry can help show us a very different place from the one we think we know...
There are two major differences between the poetry scene in Brasil and poetry in the US. As of now, there are no academic creative writing programs; you can’t get an MFA in creative writing in Brasil. Most of my friends there are amused by the idea! They’re also astonished at the number of poets here. The Brasilian poetry scene is quite small compared to ours. They don’t have an academic production line of poets and poetry, which seems to be peculiar to the US.
¶ But, like us, they do have their poetry wars in Brazil, albeit on even grander scale, from the sounds of it...
CD: If by “grander” you mean more intense, more out in the open, that’s very true. Though the agonism of the Brasilian poetry scene seems to have subsided to a great extent. In my opinion as an outsider, the escalated tensions had a lot to do with the breaking down of entrenched cultural hegemony in the 90’s. In situations like that, it’s natural that some poets begin to aggressively jockey for greater attention and influence; it’s exactly the kind of situation that gets people riled up and there’s always someone around who needs to be an unscrupulous operator. Poets who have less access to the machinery of cultural reproduction can feel very hemmed in, which only feeds frustration. I was embroiled in some such unpleasantness a few years back, and would rather not go into it too deeply, as I’m still feeling the effects of it in a number of ways. It got pretty nasty.
I think Brasilian poets pay slightly more attention to us than we do to them. For many of the living Brasilian poets that I know personally, it seems more important to forge stronger relationships with poets in the rest of Latin America (and Iberia) and to communicate more closely with poets all over Brasil.
Lately, Creeley has been a strong influence (at times indirectly) on a number of Brasilian poets, as has Language poetry, though in some cases I’m not sure that Creeley’s style and use of language have been understood very well. Something similar can be said about the Langpo connection, which has a lot of theory behind it; I wonder how much of that theory has been read and digested by Brasilians. Anyway, Creeley’s been much more representatively translated since his death, by Rodrigo Garcia Lopes and Virna G. Teixeira (who has also begun to translate Lorine Niedecker, which is some more very good news). Both Rodrigo and Virna show a real understanding of what Creeley’s all about and that’s important, because Creeley has a lot to offer poets everywhere.
As for the connection with Language poetry, unfortunately, in the past it’s been fraught with opportunism and a real need to control transmission and reception. Of course, that kind of thing is hardly foreign to any poetry scene, even though it gets in everybody’s way and slows things down. Like a friend of mine says, “Poetry needs all the help it can get.” But these things do evolve over time.
Surrealism is alive and well and evolving in Brasil. I think that’s partly because Brasilians have an instinctive feeling for Surrealism as being another form of Baroque, which is very important throughout Latin America, as you know. There’s also the neo-baroque, which is not a movement, but a tendency, and which has influenced a very diverse group of poets. People have written in Portunhol (a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese) and at least one poet has begun to write almost exclusively in Portunhol. Once I get started, it’s hard to stop. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in Brasil right now.
Translation is taken very seriously in Brasil. Many more poets translate; some of them translate constantly. I’ll just mention one great journal called Coyote. It’s edited by three poets, two of whom, Ademir Assunção and Rodrigo Garcia Lopes, are friends of mine. I respect them and their work very much and am working on volumes of selected poems by both of them. The other, Marcos Losnak, is a poet whose work I don’t know and I’ve only met him very briefly. Anyway, Rodrigo (and others) have contributed a lot of translations to the journal. Yankee poets include Laura Riding, Mina Loy, Jerome Rothenberg, Rosmarie Waldrop, Clayton Eshleman and you, among others. Rodrigo, who often works in partnership with poet and playwright Maurício Arruda Mendonça, has translated Sylvia Plath and the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Rodrigo is now in Chapel Hill for three years, right in the middle of the vibrant Lucipo scene, so he’ll probably do a lot more while he’s there. I help him with his translations whenever I can and we plan to meet and work like maniacs while he’s here in the States. There are others, like Mauro Faccioni Filho, with whom I’ve worked in the past to get poets from the US translated (also, I’m translating a long historical dramatic poem of his, very slowly!).
There’s real engagement, but it’s not as widespread as it could be. There’s a Sun and Moon/ Green Integer connection with poets in Brasil, but I don’t know where that’s going, these days. Rattapallax (NYC) has started a partnership with a good publisher in São Paulo. One of the Rattapallax editors, Flávia Rocha, is a fine and promising young poet and translator and a more than capable editor, to boot, so I think that’ll go very well indeed. I’m looking forward to working with her in the future; so far, it’s been a real pleasure. Hopefully, in the next few years, there will be an increase in communication and translation both ways. Josely Vianna Baptista, Francisco Faria, and I work very closely. We’re discussing a number of possibilities, including a Royaumont-type organization in Brasil. AS Bessa, a Brasilian art critic and translator of Susan Howe who also translates beautifully from Portuguese into English, lives in NYC and I hope we can find the time to work together more often. There is much to be excited about and we’re all hoping for the best.
¶ Let me end by asking you another personal question, Chris: What feeds this devotion to translation? Here you have given your creative life over to the work of others... I could be wrong, but you likely will never be famous like Dante or Ashbery. You are likely, in fact, because of your chosen vocation, to remain something of a shadow. What, if you’ll allow me the question, drives you to subsume yourself in such a way?
CD: My motto is “Translation fights cultural narcissism.” I don’t think I have to explain what that means, but I’m trying to work it out in full on my blog: http:/ / www.nftseries.blogspot.com
There’s not enough Lusophone poetry available in English translation. The existing anthologies are much too brief. None of them succeed in giving the reader a practical historical background by means of the actual poems themselves. Some of them are edited in such a way that certain very accomplished and/ or influential poets are misrepresented, at times extremely so, if represented at all. I’d rather be honest. I try not to waste my time on critical or personal sectarianism, and I don’t spend time on poets that make me feel, for whatever reason, that I’m unable to translate them, even if I admire their work very much. I don’t limit myself to a few poems by this or that poet. I translate representatively, which means to me 30-50 poems, give or take, in an attempt to show every facet of the poet’s work and its development (or lack thereof).
We need a huge, multi-volume anthology of Lusophone poetry that starts around 1300. If anybody is planning one, or is interested in working with me, I’m available.
I want the poets I translate to become better-known, and I want very much to impart my knowledge and experience (however limited!) of Lusophone poetry to the people among whom I was born. I want my work to be appreciated, like anybody else. But when I practice the art of translation, I surrender to the work of another poet my own poetic abilities and whatever talent I happen to possess. This seems totally natural to me. It seems honorable to me. It’s useful, that’s for sure.
As far as I know, the overwhelming majority of poets in the USA do not translate and are functional monoglots. Therefore, I know that what I’m doing is culturally and politically important, even (in strictly literary terms) world-historical, if I may be so bold to say so. I feel a responsibility: I try to hold an attitude of care and respect (but never slavish reverence) within my art which so deeply depends upon the work of other poets. I have to be ethical about it.
I have to do all this stuff as cleanly as I can. It can’t have anything to do with begging for money (though I’d love to get a big fat grant, one of these days, who wouldn’t?); padding a resumè; selling a book to some bureaucrat working for Bertelsmann; winning a corrupt literary contest; keeping a job; being the flavor of the month or hanging out with whoever’s being set up to be the flavor of next month. This is about the work — by which I do not mean obra, but trabalho, if you get my drift — and what little ambition I have is directed toward doing the best work possible in as honestly pleasurable a manner as possible.
Anyway, I’m part (a small part) of Lusophone literary history. I’m recognized by quite a few Brasilian poets. I’ve made good, close, lasting friendships. I’m recognized by poets here, as well. My Pessoa translations will do all right, I think, in terms of readership. I have 6 books of translations just about ready, 3 more in various stages of completion and I’m working towards a Very Big Anthology. But is it all worthwhile, given the state of things here? Well, people like you, Richard Zenith (who ought to know), Erin Moure, Dana Stevens and my friends in Brasil have told me that they think my translations are very worthwhile, very good indeed, and the editors of Crayon (helá-á-á-á-á-á!) certainly think so. I believe you guys. I know that I can always self-publish my translations very cheaply, and anybody who wants can get a copy of this or that. That’s plenty, isn’t it? It sure is good enough for me.
L to R: Francisco Faria, Josely Vianna Baptista and Chris Daniels on the beach near Pántano do Sul, Florianópolis, in 2002. Photo by João Urban.
Chris Daniels was born in NYC in 1956, dropped out of high school to become a dishwasher, never bothered with college, and now lives, works, and translates in the San Francisco Bay Area, where, for reasons still unclear to him, he passed the GED and received a high school diploma in 1996. His translations of Lusophone poetry have appeared all over the place. In 2003, Manifest Press published his On the Shining Screen of the Eyelids, poems by Josely Vianna Baptista, with artwork by Francisco Faria. 1913: a journal of forms has just published his translation of Baptista’s “Florid pores: a poem in six cantos,” also with artwork by Faria. His translation of selected poems by the great Brasilian modernist, Murilo Mendes, will be published in the not-too-distant future by Listening Chamber.
Kent Johnson’s author notes page gives more recent information about his work.
Jacket’s ‘author notes’ provide direct links to various pages in the magazine that feature more of an author’s work, reviews of their books, and interviews.