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Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop Interview

Publishers. Writers. Translators. Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop are two forces with wildly ambitious and divergent careers. Yet while they are very different, they have both tirelessly championed a poetry of possibility.

 

The Waldrops as Publishers

 

Jared: Burning Deck as a small press operates in this economy which tends to see corporate conglomerates or bureaucratic behemoths as the only legitimate players on the market. People will look at, “Well who put out this book?” What methods of approach or attack must a small press develop to even eek out a small name for itself in this kind of American economy?

 

Rosmarie: Competing in that arena doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work at all. I think you just need to stick around on the margins. Word of mouth is actually a powerful force.  Word travels, our little books have traveled to places where we’re astonished to find them. It’s a small thing, it’s very much in the margin of what you described, but it happens, it works. I don’t have special advice for small presses. Except don’t sit back and wait for people to buy the books. Send them out to people who you think are interested in them and then hope that the word spreads. It will actually. The poetry community is quite chatty, and people do talk about other poets. If you can place a few ads in publications that focus (or are at least interested in) poetry, it helps too. But you will never make money that way. That’s clear. It’s an alternate way of doing things.

 

Jared: It just occurred to me now, the way you were describing the alternate way of doing things. It reminds me of these underground punk bands in 80s where a bunch of teenagers got a together and started their own record labels and put out records. That sort of Do-It-Yourself attitude it seems to be.

 

Rosmarie: Yea, we started partly because we couldn’t get our own poems published. So we said, “Well, we’ll print them up ourselves.” Actually, Keith wanted a magazine, which is how it got started. We found we couldn’t afford to pay a printer. So we bought a small printing press and learned how to print. Gradually Burning Deck grew a little. It grew with some government help. In 1973 the National Endowment of the Art was founded. At that point, they wanted it to be a grassroots thing. They sent somebody around to various cities and various arts councils in cities and told them to round up the people who were publishing anything like a magazine or books and gave us a pep talk about how we should apply. We found this was possible. You had to match the amount the NEA gave you, but you could match it in labor.

 

Keith: And remember in ’73, we [Burning Deck] were 12 years old. We started in ’61.

 

Rosmarie: But the grants made a big difference because they allowed us to move into full length books and broaden the program to include some fiction and, a little later, translations. For those we also could get some outside help. Not always, but often we get help from the embassies of those countries. The German Goethe House is a good institute with a program for helping translations. The trouble with outside help is that  most institutions have the idea that their grants are “seed money,” and that afterwards you’ll be able to go on on your own. But of course, our books don’t sell any better at any time because we keep publishing little-known or unknown writers (with a few exceptions). Even the Goethe House is now mostly turning us down. This began the moment they started requiring a sales report of the publications they had supported. Obviously, they were not impressed with the sales. I told them this doesn’t mean that they are sitting in a warehouse. They go in other ways: exchanges, review books, especially a lot of exchanges. But this doesn’t impress them it seems.

 

Jared: How has the digital age changed the way Burning Deck operates?

 

Rosmarie: It hasn’t except that of course we do the typesetting on the computer.  though we do have a website that is part of  the Duration Press “empire.” Do you know this site? It has links to a lot of small presses, and Jerrold Shiroma does the websites for many of them. So I call it his small-press empire. We’re part of that. For some of the presses, you have to go through Duration Press, but we’re actually www.burningdeck.com/. Jerrold made this website for us and it probably makes some difference. But we’re not terribly fond of digital stuff.

 

Jared: You guys have been doing Burning Deck for 47 years now, right? What is the process of choosing what to publish? How do you go about doing that?

 

Keith: Oh, there are all sorts of sources. There are manuscripts that we find out about one way or another by ourselves, there are things that are sent by people who know us, there are things sent by people who don’t know us. There are manuscripts that come which are obviously being sent anywhere they can find an address, they have no idea who we are or anything about us. We can publish so few that in most instances it’s just too bad. If a manuscript comes now that we really like, we couldn’t say, “Oh that’s fine, we’ll publish it.” We would have to say, “We like this, but we’re committed for several years.” There are some presses, which I will not name, who accept whatever they like and years later the books are not yet published. We decided a long time ago not to do that.

 

Rosmarie: Also it can get a little frightening. Suddenly we are committed for five years ahead. And we’re getting old, who knows what we’ll be like in five years. Also writers wouldn’t like to be told, “We’ll do it in five years.” They’d say, “Well I think I’ll look elsewhere.”

 

Keith: It’s not so much a problem of finding something we like, but a problem of eliminating what you have to.

 

Rosmarie: There’s also more that comes into the house that we would like to do but we can’t. We do two Americans a year. The translation program is completely different because it deals with already published books. But with the Americans, two books a year, is not much.

 

Jared: Another thing I’m curious about is what’s driven you to keep Burning Deck running after all these years? A lot of people, especially when it comes to small-press ventures, I find you get what I call the legend-phenomena. You know they exist for a little while and then it’s gone forever. People look back at it like a foot-note.

 

Keith: Our longevity comes from pigheadedness.

 

Rosmarie: Every once in a while, especially when we were still printing by hand downstairs, I thought, “Do we really want to keep doing this? It’s an awful lot of work.” But there is the pigheaded factor. And there’s another factor: I’ve noticed that as soon as a press stops being active, the back catalog practically dies. We have a huge backlist. The backlist never moves as much as the new books. So I’m not sure how many of the books of our backlist would continue to be available through Small Press Distribution. So if we keep the press active we also keep the older books alive.

 

Jared: So in a way the press acts as its own archive. Something that really strikes me as curious is that despite running Burning Deck, you seek out other publishers for your own work. Why is this?

 

Keith: If we published all of our stuff. . .

 

Rosmarie: We couldn’t publish anything else.

 

Keith: In a way, I’ve always sort of wished I could do like Virginia Woolf and simply write something and let it go downstairs and see it come out as a book. For one thing, it’s a different situation. Virginia and Leonard Woolf had some money and we don’t. It doesn’t work that way.

 

Rosmarie: We have occasionally done a book of our own, but we don’t want a lot of that. We don’t want to take over the list.

 

Jared: So Burning Deck, in essence, has always had a sort of communal element to it. That you did it for besides yourself too in some ways, getting other writers you’ve noticed published. Is that it?

 

Rosmarie: Yea, I guess that is true. In fact, this is something that Keith often says to his students. If you are in a writing program, it is a very privileged situation: there are people that read your work all the time and talk with you. Once you graduate and go out into the world, it becomes very lonely. You sit at your desk and that’s it. Starting a magazine, or now even a blog, is a great way of building yourself a community and having an exchange of work. So it gives back and that is a pleasure. The books and mags that come into the house from exchanges and submissions are a great thing because they are the kind of books that we don’t often find at the bookstores.

 

The Waldrops as Writers

 

Jared: This question is probably going to lead to two different stories, but I’m always interested in asking artists, writers, musicians and such, what propelled you to move away from what Charles Bernstein has so nicely called “official verse culture” and to spend your lives within this sort of avant-garde culture, one that seems to be an open secret, one that must be actively sought out. You know, the work on Burning Deck doesn’t hit you over the head, you have actively to pursue it. What led you to this sort of place where you wanted to pursue this kind of writing?

 

Rosmarie: Keith can answer that.

 

Keith: I remember one of our friends had been sending stuff out and not getting anything in magazines and such and he had come around to the idea that he should try to figure out what is wanted. I said, “Well look, if you try to write a bestseller type of thing, in the first place, it probably wouldn’t work because bestsellers are usually written by people who believe in what they’re doing. It may be garbage, but. . .

 

Rosmarie: it’s sincere garbage.

 

Keith: And so you probably wouldn’t succeed and if you did succeed, that’s fine, then you’d make some money, then maybe you could write what you’d like, but it’s all unlikely. On the other hand, if you write what you want and eventually get it published that’s great and if you don’t get it published, then at least you’ve got something you like. And the idea of writing for a public, I don’t know that that’s a stupid idea, but it’s just not the the only way to do it. It’s not the same thing. We write what we want to write. And of course we try to get it published, but if it doesn’t get published, well, in any case, we write something else.

            I know people who’ve actually stopped writing because they felt they weren’t getting published or getting published but not paid much attention to. I can think of one very good novelist, Earl Rovit, who wrote three novels; they got better and better; the third was a masterpiece, but few people paid much attention. He was very angry and, as far as I know, never wrote another. To my mind, he had accomplished something enormous. But it is, as you say, sort of secret. Some do know about it. He was published. The books are out of print, but you can find them if you look. And they will certainly resurface.

 

Jared: Why did you two choose- and these will have quite separate responses, I’m sure- poetry as your playing field? It seems like the kind of topics you address in your writing could take any number of forms. Yet you either get classified as poetry or want to be classified as poetry. Why is that?

 

Rosmarie: Well that’s really what we do. I’ve written a couple of novels, but, for one thing, they came with great difficulty and I never felt that it was what I wanted to continue. I was always getting back to poetry.

 

Keith: I never wanted to be known as a poet. I’m in some ways more interested in writing prose than verse although verse is much easier.

 

Jared: Why is the verse easier for you?

 

Keith: Well you have something to lean on. The verse structure is a support.

 

Rosmarie: Yea, even if it’s free verse, the line is there as a thing to work against. It’s stronger than prose.

 

Keith: Prose rhythm to me is very difficult and it’s something I love. I like Henry James better than any poetry I can think of. Not that I like all prose and dislike all poetry.

 

Rosmarie: In a way, we’re both working between genres. I write mostly prose poems now which is between prose and verse in any case.

 

Keith: I think of my one novel as my major work. Out of all my work, that’s the one I. . .

 

Rosmarie: Really?     

 

Keith: . . .put at the top.

 

Rosmarie: I’m surprised.

 

Jared: Something I noticed- and I’ve mentioned it already- and you said Keith in the collective autobiography you did, you mentioned you hated the line, “And death has no dominion.”

 

Keith: Well it’s a stupid line.

 

Jared: To me that was very revealing and I could totally understand what you were saying. You know, Dylan Thomas’s sort of bombastic. I don’t know what it is, it’s proto-rock star in some ways. And I get the sense, in different ways- whether it’s the collage work you’ve done extensively, Rosmarie, or I’ve noticed this love of little fragments or sequences, Keith- there’s this constant searching that’s going on and your writings often leave me pondering what to do next. One of your poems from your book Haunt, Keith, you have one part of the sequence is:

                        if therefore some-

                        one should say

and that’s all there is on the page. And it makes me go “Say what?!! Say what?!!” And maybe this goes into how you’ve extensively translated Jabčs because I often get this sense while reading him. It’s like this provocative questioning that the words always lead to. What kind of reading experience are you hoping to construct with this method?

 

Keith:  You know the old statement, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” I’m much more extreme than that. Is it Cage who says that poetry is. . .

 

Keith and Rosmarie: . . . having nothing to say and saying it.

 

Rosmarie: He’s absolutely right.

 

Keith: That’s what I am more interested in. In my work you could find statements here and there. It isn’t what I’m writing for. What I’m after is closer to music than to philosophy or information in that sense.

 

Rosmarie: That’s also why I often juxtapose things that almost contradict one another or are very different. It’s not that  there is something I want to say and develop like I would in an essay.  It’s pieces of language that interact with one another. I was amused when you said, “What next?!” That’s always the question in writing. What next? What is the next interesting way of interacting with the language, playing with it. I don’t think I would sit down and say I want to construct a reading experience. I basically see writing as a dialogue with language and that includes what other writers have written and what I can set in play. Basically, I want to keep interested rather than say something.

 

Jared: What is the role. .  I’ve noticed that there are a lot of silences and absences. And sometimes you directly address this- whether it’s the breaking up of. . .I remember in Blindsight, Rosmarie how you used the period a lot to break up, I think, was is it Hölderlin?

 

Rosmarie: Right. I break up the sentences with periods. Partly as a rhythmic measure. Like the end of the line does in verse. But it also sometimes allows a double-construction of what it could mean.

 

Jared: Ok, yea the ambiguity of sorts. In the fragments in a work like Haunt, for example, Keith or, Mt. Misery, the thing that exists, but doesn’t exist. . .

 

Keith: Mt. Misery does exist.

 

Jared: It’s a reservoir now, right?

 

Keith: Apparently it still exists. The reservoir is a part of it or near it. There’s a very strange thing you might be interested in. There’s a couple who have an art gallery downtown (the PO Gallery). They’ve shown my collages a number of times and at some point, the man, Steve Polumbo, said, “We notice you’ve written of Mt. Misery.” He was very interested because he had owned a small part of Mt. Misery and had sold it to start this gallery that was now showing my work. I was rather amazed.

 

Jared: Wow, that’s really wacky. That’s awesome. Although, it seems to be a very well-named thing because we [Angela and I] were driving Rte. 6 into Rhode Island and it just seemed utterly miserable. All the things that are empty and stuff. I could totally. . .

 

Keith: It’s near the town of Hope. I’ve never been there. I’ve always thought we’d should have a. . .

 

Rosmarie: . . .pilgrimage.

 

Jared: Does a writer have control over where the silences appear in the work or things that get left untold? Is that a conscious decision or is it just running against a brick wall?

 

Keith: That’s why it’s called writing. It’s all a matter of timing. The words are the same words that are in the dictionary. You can always find the words, but how you arrange them and how you break them. It’s very important.   

 

Jared: So then for you, the visual aspect the writing is the key part of it. . .

 

Keith: Well, I think more of it as theatrical. My first love was theater and I’ve always had a sort of feeling that I was writing not for theater production necessarily, but what I write down is a kind of script for something that sounds. I find people often don’t read it that way. They have a hard time translating from lines on a page to. . .part of this is the way poetry is taught in schools and such. You get a poem and you’r supposed to figure out what it means. Once you know what it means, you throw the poem away because you have the meaning. That is the destruction of poetry. I want the words to remain and if people don’t know the meaning of them I don’t think that’s as bad as losing the sound.

 

Rosmarie: Well, it’s both. . .

 

Keith: Of course, the meaning changes the sound. The sound and the meaning, you can’t entirely separate.

 

Jared: This just reminds me that I have a friend who studying Thomas Aquinas and Aquinas is observed to reading silently which was highly unusual at the time. While it’s not necessarily reading aloud, but understanding writing is a physical act or translates into a physical act.

 

Keith: I read somewhere in Scientific American or New York Times or one of those exalted places, that there was an experiment in which somebody had a thing they could put in the throat to keep the muscles there from moving. They found that people couldn’t read then because even in silent reading, there is a motion in the throat. I feel that’s a very important fact. Silent reading is silent, but it’s still. . .

 

Rosmarie: . . in the body.

 

Keith: . . .translation of sound.

 

Jared: That’s actually really interesting.

When composing these sequences. . .Over lunch, I was talking about your autobiographical writings as fragmentary and I even notice Rosmarie, in your essays, they sort of take these little sections that circle around a topic and you even express anxiety about abruptly just attacking something. Rather, you want to sort of shape it. Writing in this sort of style, a very serial style, one that could technically go on and on, how do you know when to stop? Or is that just an arbitrary decision?

 

Rosmarie: The energy runs out. You have a certain form you work with, you go with it, at least I go with it while it lasts. At some point, I feel the energy flagging and I know I’ve exhausted it. Time to stop and do something else.

 

Jared: Do you feel like it’s a race against the clock or something? “Oh, I’ve got to finish this. I can feel it leaving.” No? Not at all? Ok.

 

Rosmarie: No. At least for me, when I try to force it usually doesn’t work anymore. It doesn’t come together.

 

Jared: Describing it in that way, is writing for you more of a patient activity or does it have its furious spouts?

 

Rosmarie: It varies. There are times when it’s very fluid and it happens very easily and other times when it is incredibly hard, sort of like pulling teeth. It doesn’t always means that the stuff that comes easy is better.

 

Keith: So it’s not predictable?

 

Rosmarie: No. No. It varies.

 

Jared: Do you feel the same way, Keith?

 

Keith: Yea, basically. I never look at my poems generally without changing something. I write very little, but I revise over a long span of time. In some cases, it starts with collage, where I haven’t, strictly speaking, written anything, but I revise until it’s in a book, in print. Then I usually. . .

 

Jared: . . .let it be.

 

Keith: Yea, unless it’s a minute correction of some kind.

 

Jared: Not like. . . I forget who’s the artist who got arrested for. . .

 

Rosmarie: . . .sneaking back into. . .

 

Jared: . . .the museum

 

Keith: He would go in with a brush. When the guards weren’t there, he would revise something.  Bonnard was a wonderful painter.

 

Jared: Something that has struck me and something that has arisen in the different ways you’ve responded- Keith, your love of theater and opera- I’ve noticed that despite fragmenting and, Rosmarie, you’ve mentioned a dialogue with language, that there are still these narratives that develop. I find this interesting because some writings such as the Concrete poets like the Brazilians, there is no narrative anymore or in some of the Language poets like Bruce Andrews, fracturing of phrases and sort of his own collage work that becomes something else besides narrative. But why this insistence on continuing with narrative? What are the benefits that you see with that?

 

Rosmarie: It makes you turn the page.

 

Keith: It’s probably the theatrical side of it. It’s also partly because if you want to write something longer that’s the obvious way to tie things together. They are other ways like a critique of pure reason or something. But also I’ve always loved the form of the anecdote. That’s a favorite form of mine.

 

Rosmarie: My sequences make a tease of a narrative. They have a narrative structure, but don’t really wrap anything up. Also, I often work out of a prose matrix. I choose a work of prose and start taking sentences out, not usually whole sentences, but phrases here and there. For example, in Reproduction of Profiles, I used Kafka’s “Description of a Struggle.” So there are phrases that suggest a narrative, but as I only take a little phrase here and a little phrase there the narrative gets lost. Except there still is a feeling of narrative. Also, it may come from having worked so much with Jabčs who always has a narrative that is not given, but assumed. You know, the Holocaust story. It can be assumed as a given.

 

Keith: Commentary on the untold story.

 

Rosmarie: No doubt, this comes from being so steeped in his work.

 

Jared: I’ve always loved Reproduction of Profiles and I love how there’s such an involved love story on one level, but then the language. . .

 

Rosmarie: Yea, the I and the you. . .

 

Jared: Yea, the I and the you, it seems like such an intense relationship begins to develop, but simultaneously as you become more distanced from it with all the language play with meanings and words. I find the tension fascinating. Or maybe it’s me wanting even to just superimpose a narrative.

 

Rosmarie: It’s there. But while the I and you are coded as male and female, I also think of them as the two voices that always go on in one’s own head. “Oh, you shouldn’t do this. . .”

 

Jared: With this dialogue with language you mention wanting to have, what are the benefits or drawbacks of letting language’s alien nature or its autonomous nature take over or guide you vs. most authors’ constant need to bring language within themselves and sort of dominate it.

 

Rosmarie: Well, I think it’s the opposite. I think the writing happens when the language takes over. This is again something that Jabes also felt. He said the writer is nothing but a catalyst, he brings words together on a page. It’s like luring people into a park where the lovers find each other.

 

Jared: I love that image, that’s a good one.

 

Rosmarie: Yes. The words have their own vectors, they have their own affinities. They find each other, they make love, then go off and find other combinations. I think the moment when language takes over is what Arthur Rimbaud meant when he said “I is another.” And it is what the ancients called the Muse. It’s when you’re not trying to say something that things start happening. You go somewhere where you hadn’t thought you were going. It’s a great moment.

 

Jared: Listening to you now reminds me of reading Steve McCaffery talking about John Cage’s writing and McCaffery says that Cage positions himself as a writer in order to also become its first reader. You were just mentioning now the surprise. In essence, you been put into the position of the reader in some ways.

 

Rosmarie: Yes.

 

Jared: Which sorts of texts do you find yourself attracted to using for your collages? You’ve used Freud, Wittgenstein, you mentioned Kafka.

 

Rosmarie: The literary texts I’m simply drawn to. They are texts that I love, that I wish I had written. It may seem a strange kind of hommage to use them, to rip them off! I always try to have on my desk things that are very disparate. Some fiction, some scientific books. I’m now reading about the structure of the brain. It makes for better tension if the elements going into a text are very different. Also, when I juxtapose things from very different areas  it makes me think harder. It’s a stimulus.

 

Jared: Finding new connections. . .

 

Rosmarie: . . .yes, finding new connections.

 

Jared: What’s it like being influential, having your texts written about, studied, quoted, criticized, and loved? You started out Burning Deck with a desire to just get published and now you’re at the other end of the spectrum.

 

Keith: Rosmarie, you are much more influential than I.

 

Rosmarie: Well, when it comes it’s always a surprise. A nice surprise. We haven’t gotten so much attention that it got to be a bother. We don’t have that problem.

 

The Waldrops as Translators

 

Jared: For the final couple questions, I wanted to talk about translating. Why the long term interest in French and German poetry. Of course, your German background, I can see you being interested in that, but you’ve extensively done very many French poets. . .

 

Rosmarie: Well, it’s the languages we have.

 

Keith: I’ve translated some Chinese, but only with people between me and the poem. I don’t know Chinese at all, but Xue Di was here after the Tiananmen Square massacre and arrived not knowing any English.

 

Rosmarie: He learned very fast.

 

Keith: He learned very fast, but he’s very sociable and likes to talk to people. He now speaks very fluently.

 

Rosmarie:  He asked, “Do you like my poetry?”

 

Keith: I don’t know why me, but he wanted to get together with me and we had a translator. He said something to the translator and the translator said, “He says, what do you think of my poetry?” I said, “Well, I think it’s in Chinese.” I thought since we had these three Chinese writers here, we should have them do something public, but to give an evening reading in Chinese, we’d have a very small audience in Providence, Rhode Island. So I thought we should have some translations and give a bilingual reading.  So I tried to get some translators. There was a visiting scholar from China who was actually working on American literature which is why he was here, and he was willing to take some and do translations. There was a student studying Chinese who would do some. What both of them did was absolutely unusable. It was unbelievable. So I tried to get some graduate students in the writing program work on these intermediate versions and, to some extent, did, but very few of them were at all interested or cared about that sort of thing. So I got involved in the poems of Xue Di translated by an undergraduate who occasionally couldn’t figure out a line at all and would just say, “I don’t understand this line.” You couldn’t have spoken that in public so I took it home and tried to make something of it, thinking, “Well, this is just for a reading, what the hell?” The day before the reading was to take place, a woman showed up, who was a graduate student at Yale in Chinese history, who had known Xue Di in China. She was Chinese-American. She looked at my version and at the original and she burst out laughing. So Xue Di and she and I got together and she would read a line and talk to Xue Di, and would say things like, “No, this word doesn’t mean New Year’s Eve, it means childhood.” So I took down all this and went home that night and rewrote the thing completely.  She was a friend of Eliot Weinberger and this woman, after the reading, had taken it to him and later reported that he said, “You know, this is the first time a poet has translated anybody of this Chinese generation.” So this woman did a number of literal translations, sometimes with alternate possibilities. Eventually we went to different people to help with translations.

 

Rosmarie: Also, Xue Di’s English was improving.

 

Keith: Then we put out a book of Xue Di’s poems (Burning Deck and Lost Roads Press in collaboration. It was reviewed by a Chinese man who knew English very well at the Translation Center in Texas, who loved the book. He thought Xue Di a good poet and felt the translations were good, except that sometimes my informants had misinformed me. For instance, what was translated as “Chinese silk scarf” really meant “willow-tree.” I expected some mistakes; I just wish we had found them out before we published the book. Anyway, except for two or three things like that. . .there have been several more books since then. Little books usually. There was a wonderful time when Xue Di had written a poem--this was when Xue Di’s English was quite fluent--depicting a very depressed man sitting in a bar, crying into his beer; the title was “Sad Bruce.” There were not many problems in making the poem an English poem, but I said, “I’m just curious, who is this Bruce? Somebody you knew in New York or in college?” He said, “What?” I said, “Well, Bruce, you know, who is he?” He was surprised and said, “It’s a kind of music, sad brues.” Apparently, the poem was done in. . .

 

Rosmarie: Chinese characters?

 

Keith: …in phonetic characters.

 

Jared: How did the two translation series at Burning Deck start- Serie d’Ecriture and Dichten?  

 

Rosmarie: Well, actually, I must admit that the impulse for Série d’Ecriture, which was the first one, came from the outside. Paul Green, in England, had a little magazine and wanted a French series. He asked me if I would edit it. He published the first five issues. . .

 

Keith: He published them with Rosmarie editing.

 

Rosmarie: They were mimeographed and mimeographed so badly that I felt I had to apologize to the original authors. The first one was the worst, it was practically illegible. They got better, but they still looked pretty ratty. I finally said to him, “I’m sick of having to apologize to the writers. I want to do the series for Burning Deck because I can do a better job with the production.” He wrote that he was not altogether surprised, but that he still wanted to be the distributor in Europe, which he still is. Then I kept thinking, “We have this French series. Why don’t we have a German one? I know a lot of German poetry I would like to bring out here.”

 

Jared: Why is there such, I call it in my notes a “drought,” of translation of contemporary writing in many ways. There’s such a gap usually. You see literary magazines and it’s another translation of Garcia Lorca. Yet, for Spanish writing, there’s this 70 years that’s basically untranslated. Why do you think that is?

 

Keith: If you go back more than 30 years or so, you find translation not paid much attention to--translations were often just sent back, And I remember back in graduate school, people would say, “Oh, I wouldn’t read a translation.” Then--I suppose it was gradual, but it seemed all of a sudden--everyone wanted translations. It used to be you hesitated to send out translations and then magazines started crying, “Have you got any translations?” It’s very strange. I have no idea how or why this happened, but it certainly did.    

 

Rosmarie: So if it seems still a dearth to you. But it’s a lot compared to what it was thirty years ago. Another factor: it’s simply harder to know what is written currently in other countries. I know it in Germany partly because I have an informant there now. I found books by Elke Erb in the early 1990s and  translated a selection from them. And I told her, “Tell me occasionally who are the interesting younger writers that you find.” And she does. Whereas some other writers don’t do that. I also translated Friederike Mayröcker, but she never told me any other poet I should look at. Elke I’m very lucky with because she constantly reads. She was the one who first said to me, “Look at Ulf Stolterfoht. He’s good.” In France, we’ve lived there several years and really looked at the bookstores thoroughly. We then met a number of the poets, especially Claude Royet-Journoud. Through him we met many other writers. I once talked with Kathleen Fraser who lives half of each year in Rome and said she had no sense of who the younger writers are: “It’s very hard to find the newer writers. If I ask people, they give me Zanzotto or, yet further back, Montale.” It’s not surprising. How many people here know the younger American writers? It takes work to find them.

 

Keith: For us, it’s harder to find out what’s going on in England than what’s happening in France or Germany. We know more people there. . .

 

Rosmarie: Sometimes people say, “I’d really like to translate some French writers, but I don’t know whom. Suggest someone.” I say, “Well it’s a little hard to know whom you would like, whom you would click with.” But I usually throw out a couple names and sometimes they follow up and sometimes they don’t. In any case it’s not so easy to know.

 

Jared: Yea, it’s the word on the street essentially. Older writers have more people talking about them.

 

Rosmarie: Even in the bookstores, they are more books by the older poets than by the younger ones. So you really have to look thoroughly.

 

Jared: Scanning for the copyright dates. Now what are your ultimate hopes for your translations? Do you see them as companions to the originals, as autonomous works of art, maybe signposts to direct people.

 

Keith: They’re collaborations.

 

Jared: How does personally knowing some of the writers you translate, like the sustained relationship with Edmond Jabčs or Claude Royet-Journoud, how does that effect the translating itself vs. a writer you might not know, like when you, Keith, translated Baudelaire.

 

Rosmarie: It was hard to ask Baudelaire questions.

 

Jared: Yea, I imagine.

 

Keith: Well, Baudelaire, not only do I not know him, but he’s historical, so there are books about him and that’s one thing. A slightly odder case, I translated Jean Grosjean, who was born the same year as Jabčs and died recently at ninety-something. I never met him and what I would do in both cases, (I translated two books) when I had one of them, I sent him the manuscript and said “There are two or three words I can’t find in the dictionary, my French friends don’t know what they mean.” I got a very nice reply. Also, I knew he knew English because he translated Shakespeare as well as the New Testament and Sophocles and the Koran.

 

Jared: Holy crap.

 

Keith: But I said to him, “If you read through it and find there are mistakes, I’d like to know.” He said nothing about anything except the precise questions I’d asked and made some commentary. He obviously liked the translation and he made a remark I found curious and I’ve always treasured it. I’ve sort of accepted the old idea that French is an abstract language and English a concrete language. That’s an exaggeration obviously, but that’s a direction. Grosjean wrote me and said, “You have found the concrete in my abstractions.” Which I thought was very nice. Of course, I may not be quoting exactly, but in a way it’s a very different experience of translating that and translating Jabčs, whose poems I translated partly while living in his apartment. But it isn’t finally all that different. Rosmarie and I always read each other’s translations—well, all of our work, but the translations in particular-- for mistakes. Otherwise it isn’t that different. Baudelaire, as you say, is something rather different. By the way, my translation of the prose-poems of Baudelaire will come out in the spring.  

 

Jared: I was curious too, what made you decide to translate Baudelaire?

 

Keith: Well years ago I wanted to show my students the “Correspondences” – in which he took a Swedenborg idea and put it into a neat little sonnet. I looked at the translations I could find and I didn’t like them. I just wanted the students to know what it said. So I made a rough prose translation. I used that and I kept looking at it and noticed that it was pretty bad also. I kept changing it. When I was a graduate student, I tried translating Baudelaire into metrical rhymed versions. They weren’t anything special. Anyway, over the years, I did more, putting them into versets instead of verse lines. Eventually I had a number of them so I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll do a selection.” Then when I had done that many, “Well, finally I’ll do the whole book.” Then Wesleyan [University Press] published it.

            My translating really started when I was taking French courses in college and found that I couldn’t really read French poems as poems. I could figure out what they meant, but I wasn’t really hearing them as poetry. So I tried to translate them so that I could read them as poems. The translations were awful. I didn’t understand some of the words, but that’s how it started. I can read French poetry now, but still I find it interesting to try making it English.

 

Rosmarie: Also, there is something about the slowing down that takes place when you translate. You’re reading the text very slowly. I find that there are certain German poets whom I like a lot, but who are very systematically carrying out a particular pattern. A good example is Helmut Heissenbüttel. I think he’s one of the poets most influenced by Gertrude Stein. He uses that kind of repetition, but uses it somewhat differently--the effect at least is quite different. It becomes very relentless. I like it, but when I just read it, I tend to accelerate and scan. If I really want to read a text of his I have to translate it because that forces me to slow down and pay attention to each line.

 

Jared: In some ways it’s a sort of archaeology.

 

Rosmarie: Yea, something like that.

 

Jared: I know you guys talked about this when we were at lunch, but I just like to end interviews with: what’s new and what’s next?

 

Keith: I don’t know.

 

Jared: That’s as good a response as any.

 

Rosmarie: I’m still working on a series that partly uses stuff about the structure of the brain and again uses a little bit of Wittgenstein. But it has come to a halt as work on the German magazine issue for Burning Deck took over. Work with a deadline does that. I’m just now trying to get back to my sequence and see if it can go farther or if it has been totally stopped by the interruption.

 

Keith: Also the question of what you’re doing is a very different applied to the two of us because we work in rather opposite ways. Rosmarie is one of those people who starts something and then she does it and she finishes it and then she does something else.

 

Rosmarie: Or if I work on two things, which I often do to start with, my own writing and a translation, they go for a time in tandem, but at some point one or the other takes over.

 

Keith: Whereas I do nothing that organized. I write up a few sentences and do something else. I don’t always know what they’re for or where they’ll go, and eventually some come together--or don’t. So what I’m working on is often hard to tell you, because I don’t know. Even in translations I’ll translate a little Baudelaire and a little of somebody recent. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

 

Rosmarie: And sometimes there is an outside stimulus. Somebody says, “I would really like a book by so-and-so,” and then you say, “I have quite a few of his/her poems translated here, maybe I should finish a whole book.” Keith works in little bits like that. He’ll say, “Oh I don’t have anything,” and then suddenly he will have 4 books at once. Suddenly you have two books of translations and two sequences of your own that you happened to finish at the same time.

The Jivin' Ladybug- A Skewered Journal of the Arts
 
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