David Shook Interviews John Mateer

1 June 2013

Due to my ‘dissociated’ sense of English, I feel quite at ease with the idea that whatever I write might appear in translation. Actually, I would go further than that and say that often I feel as if I am writing in translation, and that when the work is translated it is actually completed. But for that to be true the work has to be related to the place of the language into which it is translated. For example, my poems about the Portuguese empire, which you can find discussed in a piece by Kris Hemensley or by this one from Adam Aitken, are ‘naturalised’ in their translation into Portuguese.

To hark back to the question of nativity, one could say that I may be the child-spirit looking to be reborn in the language and place of the poem. I feel very happy to read with the translator, to the extent that I often feel (though it does depend on which part of my work it is) that the translator is the author and I am the translator – the mirror-image.

This is a poem that first appeared in The Harvard Review, a poem translators seem to enjoy, which I wrote about Andreia Sarabando, the Portuguese translator of my book Southern Barbarians: we were listening to the Mozambican-Portuguese poet Eduardo Pitta reading in the famous Baroque library at Coimbra.

Translators Are Angels

Translators are angels, I whispered into the ear of my guardian-angel in King João Library. They stand beside us, hearing our thoughts, only muttering what’s necessary. Smiling slightly, listening carefully to the speaker who’d mentioned my name, she said: We are perfect nobodies; nameless, voiceless, winged incandescence, except when we’re bad. Then she turned to me: Like now, if I don’t tell you what he said –

That is the poem of adoration. As is always the case in the process of idealisation, I have written another poem, about an imaginary Chinese translator, in which the poet and the translator are in a taxi going around Tiananmen Square, and the poet has a momentary vision, of the sort one might see in a Hong Kong horror movie, where the translator becomes an albino anaconda, the proverbial White Snake of Chinese folklore. I certainly meant no insult, just that, as all translators know, there is dangerous potential in translation as much as there might be wonder.

And yes, I have made some translations from Afrikaans, and what I would call ‘versions’ from other languages. Only the poems from Afrikaans would I consider translations: poems by Breytenbach, the modernist/symbolist Eugène Marais, the Jewish poet Olga Kirsch, and the controversial Peter Blum. I feel that I made rather tarnished mirror-images, resemblances, of their poems. The others, of a poem by the Dutch traveller J. Slauerhoff and of Camilio Pessanha, the Portuguese Symbolist who lived in Macau, are not translations, just half-heard echoes – desperate works of homage to poets whose work I admire.

DS: What are you reading now? What are you working on?

JM: I thought it best just to mention what I have before me right now:

Two books related to Malay literature from the Oxford in Asia Reprints Series. The Hikayat Abdullah, an autobiography of Abdullah Bin Abdul Kadir translated from Malay, and A History of Classical Malay Literature by Sir Richard Winstedt. The translator Harry Aveling also sent me a copy of a translation of the ‘Shaer Kampong Gelam Terbakar’, a famous poem by Abdullah, which appeared in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. I am reading these as I want to write a poem dedicated to or about Abdullah, a translator and champion of the modernity of Malay, and a person of an interestingly mixed cultural and linguistic background.

Missing Person by Adil Jusawalla and Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar are both books I was happy to find in the library after having been introduced to their works recently by an anthology, The Bloodaxe Book Of Indian Poetry, edited by a friend: the poet and musician Jeet Thayil.

And Adonis’s An Introduction to Arabic Poetics. I am interested to read Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses again after that. The question of the anti- and proto-modernity of Arabic literature, as Adonis presents it, in relation to the Koran, is something that I haven’t seen taken up by those who have written on Rushdie’s infamous book. That book, controversial and important as it was in its time, doesn’t seem to have been read as a discourse on the question of the poetic, in its broadest sense, and how that is related to the conjunction of the language of Arabic and Islam.

A selection of short articles – cróica – The Fat Man and Infinity by António Lobo Antunes in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation, small pieces that appeared originally in newspapers in Portugal. The form and practice of these kinds of texts interests me.

Last, in preparation for a paper I hope to present at a conference in Zanzibar, I am reading a book of Afrikaans essays on Breytenbach that appeared while he was still in prison, and one of the books of his selected poems in English, In Africa Even the Flies are Happy, translated by Denis Hirson, not by the poet himself as is his usual practice.

What am I working on? The way I work is two-fold and cyclical. I write new work very quickly, often when I am travelling, and then I work on it very slowly, sometimes even after an interval of years; I also quite often write new poems that I add to already developed, sometimes even published, work. I once heard an artist describe his praxis as a spiral – repetition, but around an expanding axis. This describes the structure of my practice, too. For example, I have been writing new poems and revising older poems, some of which go back 15 years, which will be added to a future edition of The West: Australia Poems 1989–2009.

At the same time, I have other work that is ‘in development’ either on the page or in my mind. I am now working on a book of poems related to the vestiges and presence of Islam and Arab culture, or rather what I would characterize as the idea of ‘The Moor’, in places that I have been travelling to in the past few years: Spain, Portugal, as well as Dubai and South Africa. I am writing and finishing poems that I will add to my gathering of work related to Asia – Sumatra, Japan, Singapore and China – which will build on what appeared in the selected poems Elsewhere.

Then there are the books that translators are working on: selections in German and, hopefully, Swedish; a new booklet to come out in Portuguese; as well as the Portuguese edition of Southern Barbarians/Barbáros do Sul, and a Spanish edition of my Ex-White: South African Poems that first appeared in Austria. It seems, too, that there may be a book containing the Portuguese poems with a number of essays by scholars interested in contemporary poetry and Camões.

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About David Shook

David Shook is an American poet, filmmaker, and translator. His debut collection, Our Obsidian Tongues, is out in 2013 from Eyewear Publishing in London. His many translations include Roberto Bolaño's infrarealist manifesto, Mario Bellatin's Shiki Nagaoka, Tedi López Mills' Death on Rua Augusta, and Víctor Terán's poetry from the Isthmus Zapotec of Southern Mexico. He served as the English PEN Translator in Residence at the 2012 Poetry Parnassus at the Southbank Centre, part of the Cultural Olympiad leading up to the Olympics. There he screened his documentary Kilómetro Cero, about poet Marcelo Ensema Nsang,covertly filmed in Equatorial Guinea in 2011. Shook lives in Los Angeles with his wife, where he edits Molossus and Phoneme Media. Learn more at http://davidshook.net

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