. Perihelion Verbatim ---- Marilyn Hacker 

"I was always perplexed by the idea of a new formalism, because the old formalism was still there."

More Perihelion:

Bob Sward's Writer's Friendship Series

Book Reviews

Need to Know



Issue 10: Out on a Limb

Issue 9: The Missing Body

Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Robin Behn

Richard Garcia

John Hennessy

Adrian Matejka

Ayukawa Nobuo

Eunice Odio

Kathryn Rantala

Anna Ross

Mathias Svalina

Larissa Szporluk

Kevin Tsai

Translation and Writing: A Conversation With Marilyn Hacker

Interview by
Jennifer Dick

It’s the end of the lunch hour at the Café Le Diplomat on rue de Turenne in the Marais, Paris 2002. As the sated crowd thins, taking some of the clatter and din with it, the smoke also begins to fade. Marilyn Hacker settles in along one of the back benches by the mirrors, her coffee steaming in front of her, a group of men up by the bar watching the races on TV. As we talk, Hacker glances around and outside to the busy street from time to time to see what’s happening. She has lived nearby for many years now, and the waiter stops over for a breather to say hello and see if we need anything else.

Winner of numerous awards including a National Book Award, the Leonore Marshall, Bernard F. Connors and John Masefield Memorial prizes and fellowships from the Guggenheim and Ingram Merrill Foundation, Marilyn Hacker lives and works in this neighborhood on her writing and translations of Clarie Malroux, Venus Khory Gata and others. It is here that numerous poems have been penned, neighbors have been eyed, conflicts resolved, reservations made about what to do; here, that days have been spent muddling over life here life back in the states and the divide between them, and here, where Hacker has pondered the people carried from one to the other shore of the Atlantic in books like Going back to the River, Selected Poems, Squares and Courtyards as well as in the forthcoming Desesperanto (2003).

I asked Marilyn Hacker if she would take a few minutes to talk about her life and writing, the history of how she came to live between two countries and two languages.

Jennifer Dick: How is it you first began coming to France, and did you already speak French?

Marilyn Hacker: I do have a degree in French literature, though living a language and writing term papers in it are different experiences! I started coming to Paris regularly when I was an antiquarian bookseller living in London in the 1970s. I came here to buy books about the applied arts and decorative arts, furniture, architecture and rugs, from the beginning of colored printing in the late 19th century up until the second world war. I know it was then that I really first came to love the city. I'd been here before to visit, but I think there is something about coming to a city to work that puts you in touch with it in a different way. Ever since then, I've been in Paris as much as I could be, which includes living here for longer stretches of time, then eventually just living here tout court.

Owning an apartment here is a big step—that's a statement—when did that start?

Yes, that's a statement. I lived in the studio apartment that I bought for four years before I bought it in 1989, so I was already in it. I began living there in 1985, so I've had the same address and phone number since then.

When did you start translating?

It began almost accidentally in 1989. I was at a conference on French and American poetry in Grenoble. I had participated in the festival Franco-American de poésie with Jacques Rancourt in 1987, which was a good experience. I met Claire Malroux in 1989 in Grenoble which was also a four-day conference that included round tables and readings for at least 10 American poets and 10 French poets. Unlike the festival Franco-American de poésie which includes all francophone and Anglophone countries—they make a point of having one Quebecois, one Anglo-Canadian, one Australian, one Martiniquais and so on— this was specifically poets hexagonaux and American poets from the United States. Claire Malroux was one of the French poets there, and was also there to speak as a translator. Denise Levertov, CK Williams, Carolyn Kizer, Hélène Cadou and Jacques Darras were there. Quite a distinguished group.

Was everyone bilingual?

No, very few participants were. I remember being called in to service a couple of times to be simultaneous translator on panels, including one where people were insulting each other.

Did you soften the commentary?

A little bit, but as accurately as I could. In any case, there were, of course, readings as well. Since most of the anglophone participants were not bilingual, Claire asked if I would try and do a very rough translation of a sequence of poems she was going to read. Later, I realized that what I had done was very approximate and inaccurate, but I was already taken with the sequence the way one is with something one's begun to translate so I worked on it further. After working on that poem I worked on some others. By 1995 we had a book-length manuscript called Edge, which Wake Forest University published in a bilingual edition the following year.

How did you get involved with translating Vénus Khoury-Ghata, who is a very different writer?

I first encountered Vénus Khoury-Ghata's work in an anthology on which I was asked to write a reader's report in 1998. Her poems fascinated me, and I sought out more, translated one. It happened that she and Claire Malroux served on a literary jury together that year. I sent the poem to Vénus, and she invited Claire and myself to lunch— she's a legendary hostess. We've become good friends since then. I continued to translate her poems–which are almost all in long sequences, so once one starts, it's difficult to stop for at least fifteen pages. The narrative quality of her work— a narrative inflected by surrealism and by tropes from Arabic poetry—appeals to me, and also its constant questioning of language itself from the point of view of a bilingual writer, who chose French over Arabic for her writing, but who has nonetheless two mother tongues. At this point I am working with several contemporary French poets: Claire Malroux, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Guy Goffete, Hédi Kaddour, and Marie Etienne— who right now has two new books, a book of poems, and a novel about World War II in Indochina where she was born (published by Balland).

Like V Khoury-Ghata, Marie Etienne is both a fiction writer and a poet. I've also translated some poems by Gabrièle Althen, André Velter, and Amina Saïd— a younger Algerian poet.

Translation is an interestingly different way to be involved both with poetry and with the language that I've found myself living in much of the time. It's also something I find really useful in my own work. I think the two feed each other.

How or in what ways?

When you translate poetry in particular you're obliged to look at how the writer with whom you're working puts together words, sentences, phrases, the triple tension between the line of verse, the syntax and the sentence. That's especially true if the poet being translated is composing in coherent sentences, experimenting with that tension of grammar pulling against form.

Also, the ambiguities of language, both in terms of vocabulary and syntax, are fascinating: how important connotation is, what is lost and what is gained in the linguistic transition. Translation makes me look at how a poem is put together in a different way, without the personal investment of the poem I'm writing myself, but equally closely technically. Perhaps first and foremost is the challenge of taking what I find as a reader, as a writer reading, and making it into a poem that, primarily, has to be a plausible poem in English.

Do you think it has changed your own poems and things you're doing rhythmically?

Sometimes I can see that happening. It is interesting to be working with poets whose work is so different from my own, and who are very different from each other.

Of the people you have translated, you seem to have particularly focused on a large body of Claire Malroux and Vénus Khoury-Ghata's work. Why these two, what has particularly appealed about their work?

I don't think it's by accident that I was first attracted to translating two French women poets, in a field which is still, so much more than the American or the British, dominated by men, and in which the specificities of women's poetry are not discussed, whether to be illuminated or melded into the larger field. Neither Claire nor Vénus would, I think, identify herself as a "feminist": that word is much more easily accepted (and acceptable) in the Anglophone world. But each of them deals, in a very different way, with the inflections of particularly female experience on perceptions of language, history, the material world and the world of ideas. (Vénus' last book of poems is entitled Elle Dit, and I've kept that assertive She Says as the title of the second translated collection.) Having used the word "history," it's apparent to me as well that each of these poets deals with the interpenetration of individual experience by those macro-events that we call "history"—changes in government, wars, migrations, changes in language itself.

The second book that I translated of Claire Malroux's is Soleil de Jadis. It is a 100-page narrative poem, about the poet's childhood in southwestern France, between the Spanish Civil War the election of socialist deputies from the Popular Front—of whom her father was one—and the first years of World War II. The individual pieces of the book can stand alone, some work powerfully as individual lyric poems, some as verse "portraits" of individuals or locations. But the book is in one narrative. Once I started working with it, there was no question that if I was going to translate some of it, I was going to translate it all.

What do you mean when you call these lyric poems?

Of the individual poems in that book, some of them are more lyric and some are more descriptive or narrative. I'd call the individual poems lyric in the sense that they are in the lyric moment, rather than mini-narratives within the larger one that cover a span of days or weeks. Each poem is fixed in a moment. All those moments written or read together take on the movement and architecture of a narrative.

Listening to you read, I was struck by how you not only managed to bring into English the meaning but also the same or parallel lyric rhythms to the French. The question—how much do I stick to the form, how much do I seek that same rhythm—has always plagued translators. For you, if the poem is a sonnet, do you stick to that form and try to find it again?

As much as is possible. For example, Guy Goffette has an idiosyncratic form that he's worked on and talked about, which is very like a sonnet, as well as a thumbing of his nose at the sonnet. It has 13 lines, 3 quatrains and a last line that stands alone and is very often an Alexandrine. There is a strong use of slant-rhyme. I try to follow that as much as possible—I tend to use iambic pentameter instead of the Alexandrine, which sounds odd in English, which is more abbreviated than French anyway. This is not something I find all that difficult to do, fortunately; in fact, it's a pleasant challenge, and it's an interesting form.

But I haven't been working yet with poets who are doing strictly rhymed and metered forms, of which there aren't many contemporaries, though there are some, and not negligible ones. I admire Jacques Roubaud's sonnets, for example, and Jacques Réda's rhymed and metered urban landscape poems, and William Cliff's verse narratives in sonnet and dixain form. I know that were I translating those, I would attempt to do something equivalent because otherwise, one is leaving out an essential part of the poet's project. However, I know there are varying schools of thought about that, and I don't feel absolute about it.

In America there is a preponderance of poets being published today. What do you think these poets you're translating can bring into the American scene, can give or add to the American writer or reader that is different or unusual or that is helping to develop poetry?

I don't know whether a poem has be there to help to develop something. I think it's there for itself, for what the reader finds in it. If these are not only poems from a different country and a different language, but also a different history—or histories, as the history of Lebanon or Tunisia is not the history of France—if they are poems which have a different relationship both to history in the larger sense and to literary history of the French language, a different relationship to the dialogue that is poetry as well, as they must, partaking of different traditions, I think that necessarily they have to take a different trajectory with a different destination. That makes for interesting reading. It does for me when I'm reading them in the original.

Going back to your own work, you're considered a formalist at least to a certain extent. What has led you to primarily work in a formal space?

Just the pleasure that I take in writing, what gets me interested in writing a poem. It's not a statement about what I think anybody else should be doing. For me, it's an interesting tension between interior and exterior. As I said when talking about translation, the pull between sound and syntax creates a kind of musical tension in the language that interests me. Of course a fixed meter is not the only way to create that tension, it's one way, but for me it's a reliable way, and a reliable pleasure.

Do you think writing in form today is a radical act?

No. I was always perplexed by the idea of a new formalism, because the old formalism was still there, written, not in the distant past, but by people who are a generation older than I am, dead and extremely living, like James Merrill, Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, John Hollander, Gwendolyn Brooks, Hayden Carruth, Marie Ponsot, Muriel Rukeyser, some of whom are or were consistently "formalists" and some who move easily between fixed and open forms. On one hand, there is now what has become hegemonic-post-Ezra Pound free verse, much of it lacking Pound's invention, knowledge and discipline— post-W.C. Williams free verse is more accurate—but on the other hand, there are many Anglophones writing in fixed forms, American, Canadian, Irish, Scots, English—there seems to be a long continuum. No one tags Seamus Heaney or Derek Walcott as "formalists." And there are also various, important experimental poetries which are as different from "free verse" as any sestina.

I've been wondering about the question of form in relationship to France. You work in form and from a very personal narrative space as well. Yet, you're living in this culture, in French culture whose poets have, for the most part, abandoned form for a more fragmented, often philosophical, impersonal, non-narrative poetry—though I admit there are exceptions such as Yves Bonnefoy.

And the poets I mentioned earlier, such as Jacques Réda, Roubaud, Claire Malroux in Soleil de jadis.

Yes, but there are a lot of poets dominating the scene these days such as the recently deceased André du Bouchet, for example, or Olivier Cadiot, Philippe Beck and Christophe Tarkos. Even Anne Portugal or Véronique Pittolo. All these French writers are working in a very different space than form or personal narrative.

Yes—and the Oulipiens, who are working in a different space altogether. I also wouldn't necessarily conflate "form" and "personal narrative." But it's true, it's rather paradoxical that the major strains of contemporary French poetry move rather far from what I'm doing. Although, some of the people I've mentioned might be in that space—Réda, Guy Goffette of my generation, or Roubaud—though he tends to interested in poetry from America that is as different from his own as possible—such as Jerome Rothenberg's or Clayton Eshleman's. He (Roubaud) may write sonnets that sound like John Donne in French—something that you read with the same kind of shock and rightness and wit that you feel when you read John Donne, of a little knife going in—I think of a particular set of sonnets in his last book, with so much wordplay in it which will make them hard to translate. But that has not been what he's sought out in American writing, in which he has a lively interest: I've often wondered what he'd think of James Merrill's poetry, for example. On the other hand, Guy Goffette is writing a short book on Auden, and Claire Malroux translates Derek Walcott, who works with both meter and narrative. So, there is a renewed interest in all kinds of Anglophone writing.

Many American poets such as Alice Notley, CK Williams, Cole Swensen, Keith and Rosemarie Waldrop, Ellen Hinsey, Laura Mullen, etc. live at least part of the year in Paris. Why do you think that is? Do you think there is a kind of community going on here? People who don't live in Paris often want to say Paris is having a new revival, like in the twenties. What do you think the draw to Paris is?

Paris is a wonderful city. What can I say? I can't say I belong to an especially anglophone community. On the other hand, I think it's curious that there are Americans who I never see in the states because we're a million miles away from each other, like Carolyn Kizer and Sandra Gilbert, but I see them here, because when we're here we're neighbors.

Do you think there's a particular community here?

Community means people spending time together here, and I don't think there's really that. Of the people you mentioned, some may not even know each other. I met Cole Swensen, for example, because I was co-editing an issue of Poetry on contemporary French poetry and we got to know each other. We met to talk about that. I very much like how she's incorporated the history of Paris and the language into her own last book, Such Rich Hour.

That makes me think of how, as you speak, there are a lot of little French phrases that bubble out because they’ve become natural, second nature, but in your own work there aren't that many Frenchisms. Is this because you make an effort to re-write them, to hold them at bay? I find the longer I live here the more the French imposes itself.

Yes, I make an effort. It's one thing to have street names of something that's taking place on the corner of rue St Anne and the rue de Turenne, but another to have something French at random. Sometimes it's Comment dit-on ça en anglais? Or the worst is when you know there's a word and you can't think of the name.

In the work of Erin Mouré, Québécoise poet, there is the unapologetic and total mix of languages.

Yes, you have a little more of an excuse if you're Quebecois. Like Nicole Brossard does that. She writes in French, she's bilingue, but sometimes there's a stretch of English in her French work. And not even something that's slang or untranslatable, where there's probably an excuse.

What about difficulties with an English that sounds translated, or even stilted by the sound of the French. Do you ever feel stuck on what I call a Frenchism—like what Nancy Huston talks about in her essay Nord Perdu (Losing North):

"you go 'home' and people can't believe their ears. What? You call that your mother tongue? Have you seen the state it's in? I don't believe it!...How dare you make mistakes? How dare you cast around for the right word? You've got all the words you need, you drank them down with your mother's milk, how dare you act as if you'd forgotten them?"
How she feels sometimes she sounds like she's translating back into her own language. Sometimes I feel that I will write a phrase and it sounds stilted, wrong, because in fact it is a mental literal translation from French.

That's an interesting problem. Perhaps one reason is that Nancy Huston has made that very difficult choice to write in French. Mavis Gallant, for example, another brilliant Canadian, is completely bilingual in her life and reading, has lived here for 52 years and always writes in English, even conducting interviews with the French press in English. Her English prose style is lapidary, individual, not translated or transliterated from the French. I try to be conscious of that, to keep the languages separate.

How do you see French poetic culture and American poetic culture as similar or different, unified or in conflict with each other?

I don't know about "conflict," but there are differences. I would say that there is a certain openness in American and British poetry circles that manifests itself, for example, in magazine editors' willingness to read unsolicited manuscripts by writers whose names they've never seen before, indeed, taking it for granted that such reading is a large part of their work. I was surprised to find that this is not the case in France, that the initial entry into publication in journals depends much more upon pre-existing connections and allegiances.

Also, the phenomenon of university creative writing programs doesn't exist in France. The whole idea is regarded as a novelty, or an oddity. Hédi Kaddour who teaches at L'Ecole Normale Supérieure has been teaching a workshop and having a wonderful time doing it. Ellen Hinsey, an American poet, is teaching a writing workshop in English at the Ecole Polytéchnique which I find hard to imagine—but it's a great way to learn a language. You're less restrained. But from those isolated cases in the Grandes Ecoles to having departments in almost every university is a mixed blessing, and must be the biggest difference not only between the US and France but between American and other literary cultures.

For here, as soon as a young poet has a chapbook published, for example, he or she finds her/himself in contact with the older, more established poets. This often leads to a sharing of work, a critical discussion gets going and that's the same as a workshop but on a more one-on-one level. What, for you, is the difference in the writing based on these workshops or such a workshop culture? How does that make the writing itself differ from that in France?

I think that's a different kind of relationship—a sort of mentorship that becomes a friendship. It's not something you take a degree in. Although, given the devaluation of literature (and of the study of foreign languages) per se in the United States, as well as the preponderance of theory over text in graduate literature studies, practically speaking, creative writing programs keep literature courses populated.

There is a way in which all writing is connected. In a second language, for example, a workshop can liberate the students' use of the vocabulary they're acquiring. It's not taking place because everyone thinks they're going to write one book of poems or one novel. I wonder what it means about American literary culture and its transmission when I consider the number of American poets who earn their living teaching creative writing in universities. I've ended up doing that myself. It's not anything I ever thought I wanted to do: I took it up when an invitation came, may years ago, and after a while it was my de facto profession. I more or less fell into being an antiquarian bookseller and I enjoyed it. I consciously wanted to be the editor of a literary magazine, which I was on several occasions, most notably at the Kenyon Review from 1990-1994, and which is perhaps related to teaching. However, editing a journal is a different kind of engagement. You are free to engage yourself only with the work that first engages you, whether it's by someone by whom nobody has yet read a line, or by Adrienne Rich or Hayden Carruth. As an editor, I continually felt honored by the work I was doing. Putting together a journal is essentially compiling an anthology, and inviting the reader to contrast and compare, to consider the way the juxtapositions play off each other. As a teacher you are more or less obliged to pay the same amount of attention to everything. That can wear you down.

Also, when you are in a university, paradoxically, it makes those inter-generational relationships between writers more problematic. It's one thing to be a young writer who's published a first book and through that book made one or several literary acquaintances. Those are personal relationships—as formal or informal as the parties want, a mentorship involving criticism or talking about politics over coffee on Thursday afternoons. You are almost not free, if you are teaching a group of graduate students, to become friends with one of them. I don't mean anything erotically charged, just a friendship. Clearly, once the student is no longer a student the possibilities of relationship are enlarged.

How do you envisage poetry continuing and existing in the realm of internet and with modern technologies? Will these technologies be beneficial to it?

So far, I think they have been. I'm addicted to email, but other than that, there are practical things—being able to buy a book on the internet that you can't find in your local bookshop. This might not be an issue if you live in the 3rd arrondissement, or in London or lower Manhattan, but could be a lifeline if you live further from the sources.

Also, the various on-line discussion groups are ways to find out about books and writers that one might have remained ignorant of otherwise. Various web sites often have the seductive feature: "If this interests you, click here to read" something, then click for another link about the author, then click to buy the book. With poetry in particular, that is a significant antidote to books' absence in bookshops.

You have a book forthcoming, but how do you think your own work is developing and growing? I mean that I think it is, though you are very many books in. But do you feel you keep growing and moving towards a future? Also, do you have a particular process in which you write, a draft at once, etc?

That's always the hardest thing to say about oneself. Not, please, to be like the beasts that repeat themselves, a line from Auden. But I think it's really difficult to say. I try to write everyday. I do that much better over here than when I'm teaching. I always re-write, usually fairly close-on which is to say first draft, then put it aside for twenty-four hours then more drafts.

You write your drafts mostly all at once? Even with longer drafts?

Usually, even with longer poems, especially if there is a form connecting it. But also, one tends to lose the thread. As I know you know, since you work with longer sequences yourself, there is something very satisfactory about being in the middle of something. The question is not "will I ever start anything again" but "alright now, let's get back to that problem in part four." That also depends on what you mean by a "draft" – a long poem is often actually a sequence, and the rewrite-in-progress is section by section.

When you were younger you wrote a longer narrative sequence, a novel in 218 sonnets. Also, having said you're working with Claire Malroux and Vénus Khoury-Ghata, people who are writing these long sorts of works, I was thinking about how one of the things that strikes me about French poetry is that they write full-on book-length works, rather than Americans who tend to think in one-poem-at-a-time terms. Do you think translating is drawing you back towards doing long works?

Perhaps a bit. I've always had a penchant for the crown of sonnets, where one sonnet leads to another sonnet and then another, as in John Donne's The Corona. But that's only seven sonnets. It is interesting to think about the 48 sonnet sequence, or the sequence of 48 anything, where there is something about the narrative, the tone or the form itself that propels it.

Your next book is coming out in 2003. What should people be watching for?

It is called Desesperanto, an invented word borrowed from a poem by Michel Deguy. But the poem whose title that is has nothing to do with Michel Deguy, but is more or less, entre guillemets, about Joseph Roth or at least on themes taken from Joseph Roth's novels or essays. I think the word Desesperanto, in its inter-lingual inter-textuality is very applicable to Roth. There is also a longish, unlinked sonnet sequence about this neighborhood—the third, fourth and 11th arrondissements.

Would you say the thing that influences you most in Paris is the place itself? The themes of this neighborhood reoccur many times in your work, for example in some of my favorite older poems such as "Going Back to the River" or “Days of 1999”.

So many people have said that Paris is an agglomeration of villages. It's true I think I have the same relationship to the newsagent and the baker as you do in Nullepart-sur-Colline.

Do you find life's much more intimate than in the states—as in, the relationships with the city? What are some of the differences with New York?

More intimate, in a way. And praise Voltaire, there are no flags except on municipal buildings! There is a sensible pre-eminence given to international news—by which I do not mean news of the United States—in the newspapers (my addiction is Le Monde). In this neighborhood things have been changing fast, too fast. I can remember when the endless clothing boutiques in the rue des Francs- Bourgeois were grocery shops, bakeries, newsagents. But from here you can still walk almost everywhere. In a reasonable amount of time you can be at the canal, in Belleville or Ménilmontant, at Père Lachaise, across the river in the 5th, or 6th. In 15 minutes on foot you're entirely elsewhere, which goes along with things being humanly scaled. There are buildings in which you can walk to the top floor on an ancient staircase without losing your breath, green spaces everywhere; there's the way the light changes eight times a day.

For Marilyn Hacker on the web, please see Marilyn Hacker And Desesperanto.

Jennifer Dick is currently a WICE writer-in-residence in Paris, where she teaches Creative Writing for WICE, and for Oxbridge Summer Programs. She is co-editor of the journal Upstairs at Duroc. She is completing her DEA in Comparative Literature at L’Université de Paris III: La Sorbonne Nouvelle.