Ali Alizadeh Interviews Paul Kane

1 February 2013

AA: One of the other significant developments of the last two decades has been the rising importance of translation as a genre of contemporary poetry. Once upon a time only dedicated travellers or multilingual adventurers translated poetry, but now it’s something that most poets, myself included, attempt at some point during their careers. And you yourself are also interested in this area. Could you speak about how you see the state of poetry translation, particularly in the US, and how you think our cross-linguistic and cross-cultural understandings of poetry could evolve in our transnational world?

PK: I’m glad you bring that up. We live in an age of translation. In Australia alone I can think of many wonderful translators, including Chris Andrews, Simon West, Ian Johnston, Judith Bishop, Julie Rose, Ouyang Yu. In the U.S. we have Richard Howard, Lydia Davis, the late William Weaver, Eliot Weinberger, Rika Lesser, Red Pine, Charles Simic, many, many more. This opens up the world for us, even if the number of translations per year is still comparatively small. In the mid-1970s, the anthology by Charles Simic and Mark Strand, Another Republic, introduced many European and South American poets to U.S. readers, and, as a result, had an immense influence on the subsequent course of contemporary American poetry. The same was true for Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred, and, earlier, Rexroth’s translations from the Chinese. These all became sources of renewal for American poetry. In fact, the more you look at the history of translation, the more you realize how formative it has been (look at the influence of the Persian poets—especially Hafiz—on Emerson, for instance). In our increasingly globalized world, this should be a rapidly evolving process. And yet, poetry translation still isn’t as large a part of poets’ training as it should be. I think it needs to be talked about more. How many translation prizes are there in Australia? How seriously are universities taking their foreign language departments now? There was a time, particularly in the 19th century, when translation was less necessary because educated people knew classical and European languages as a matter of course. I think, in fact, that Horace virtually invented the English gentleman, there was so much translation of his poems at school. But our appreciation of the range of languages and literatures has expanded now and we need translators to help us grasp what’s out there. Journals are crucial in this process. Cordite Poetry Review did a bilingual Korean edition not long ago and I like how Mascara has a regular translation feature. If we worry about a narrow nationalism in poetry, translation is one way to counteract it.

AA: You mention Ralph Waldo Emerson, that’s another one of your key areas of interest. You’ve edited two editions of his writings, one with Harold Bloom, and you are also in the process of writing a book about Emerson, if I’m not mistaken. What can the contemporary poet and reader learn from the 19th century Transcendentalist thinker and visionary writer?

PK: I find Emerson an inexhaustible source of provocation. A number of years ago, his strange and haunting essay ‘Experience’ was suddenly all the rage because scholars, having been exposed to the full impact of Theory, saw Emerson in a new light. His peculiar shifts in thought, his linguistic play, his self-revising moves came to seem an anticipation of anti-foundationalism and even deconstructive practices avant la lettre. Transcendentalism began to appear as the least interesting part of him, and in fact I’m not sure we should even call him one (he himself rejected the label, even though he was clearly the founder of the movement). John Jay Chapman, at the end of the 19th century, understood something of this when he said, ‘If a soul be taken and crushed by democracy till it utter a cry, that cry will be Emerson.’ At the same time, Emerson is fundamental to the development of American culture and its vision of democratic society. The common notion of him as a genteel philosophizer is ill informed. The former President of Yale, Bart Giammatti put it nicely: ‘Emerson is not the lover of Nature, the sweet, sentimental Yankee Kahil Gibran, but a man as sweet as barbed wire, whose sentimentality is as accommodating as a brick.’ I think it was Murray Bail who described reading ‘Self-Reliance’ slowly, ‘blow by blow.’ That’s the Emerson I recognize. His poetry, by the way, is usually misapprehended because the form is often deliberately non-traditional. He wrote the first Prose Poem we have, long before Baudelaire and others got onto it.

AA: Finally, how do you balance or negotiate your work as a scholar with your work as a poet? One of your collections was, interestingly enough, titled Work Life (Turtle Point Press, 2007). You are, of course, in addition to being a poet and a scholar, the poetry editor of the journal Antipodes. How can one go about orchestrating so much writing work in one’s life?

PK: I wish I had a good answer to that. I recall asking the formidable Richard Howard—poet, translator, critic, essayist, editor, teacher, etc.—that question, and he said, ‘If I didn’t do so much I would probably do nothing at all.’ For me, the two nouns Work and Life are inseparable, and function as verbs as well. To live is, in a sense, to work on myself, and my work is a voicing of my life. To go back to Emerson, he says ‘the man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.’ I think there’s a deep lesson in that. ‘Do your work,’ he admonishes, ‘and I shall know you.’

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About Ali Alizadeh

Ali Alizadeh's new book is Marx and Art and his next collection of poetry (Towards the End) will be published in 2020. He's a Senior Lecturer at Monash University.

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