Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle on Paul Legault's The Other Poems

by on Apr.07, 2011

(Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle conducted this interview with Paul Legault, whose book The Other Poems is coming out from Fence Books this spring.)

I No Longer Go by “Emily Dickinson.” You Can Call Me “Queen Emily Dickinson” Now.

GC-H: We might take the title of your next book, The Other Poems, to mean simply “some more poems,” and stay suitably degage’, but let’s push instead for the monster mother much maligned major Modern narrative and go with Lacan’s Big Other. A dispositif, or motor apparatus, Freud’s topologies chart a hydraulics of erotic force: the unconscious as transformer, a powerhouse plus scrambler. If we shunt this through Lacan’s “The unconscious is structured like a language.” then your The Other Poems acts like some ex con, teardrop tattooed on his cheek, bomb strapped to his chest, wearing a black T-shirt reading in big block letters “I am here to fuck things up!”

“The exactness of your pants will bury Greek drama in its hall of coats lit by match light.” That’s not a legitimate statement, Paul.

389: When I’m dead, people will be nicer to me. They might even remember my name: Saint Emily Dickinson. *

PL: The only real way to answer a question like that is in the language of a manifesto.

The subjectivity of the hive mind is the reason for the objectivity of its constituents.

The only creative act that can be implemented must be the arbitrary decision of the greater system.

In order for an objective progress in art to occur, all the constituents must achieve agency.

The subject was something that stirred itself when it met the greater subject.

Then what stirred was somewhere else that kept this a part of it.

We are responsible for the success of this subject and not responsible for our actions.

The new creative systems like the old define their success by their growth.

The traditional development of art is the development of complex methods of communication.

In this way our systems of communication gain the positive connotations of art, and art takes on the lexical burden inherent in communication.

Language loses the most in this exchange—and gains the most as well.

Translation must extend beyond the exchange of a foreign language for its domestic counterpart into an exchange between media.

Thus media must take on the form of our outer languages.

Every text will be rewritten. Or else put into a trunk—to then be found and rewritten.

In this way, there are endless works to be written, just as there always were.

Or else you can burn the trunk and its store. You can rewrite the text as one that no longer exists. These are the most powerful of all works, though their power does not extend beyond the realms of absence.

Translation is the invisible genre. Like evolution.

385: I’m a little clingy. Can I make a necklace out of some of your teeth?

GC-H: When I write I prowl. I feel like I am stealing. It’s my drug of choice. Black electrical cats on crystal methedrine. Breaking and entry in the night time. The mad critic Victor Shklovsky cites Tolstoy’s letters. Tolstoy had all but written War and Peace, planned, plotted; profiled characters. He lacked magic, what he called “the energy of delusion,” fuel of false belief. The expanse of Europe, its Napoleonic war, love, death, storm and fury; how create them ex nihilo? He could not bring them to life; real-ize them; put his pen to paper. Of course, fiction prevailed. Hieratic hallucination. Now that’s projective verse! Immersive media? Phooey. This is vision and passion. Pulse, pace, destiny and design. When you write do you enter the Rapture?

PL: Probably not. I find that vision with a capital ‘V’ is annoying. Frost had that and all the frozen leaves in his rural landscape did. Blake had that but at least his was insane.

Like most writers, I fetishize insanity—but always in the context of a life stowed away in Hölderlin’s tower, at the end of my days, stirring up fragments from dust with the precise movements of a caged bird. That isn’t a productive model for me at this point.

Everyone wants the world to end a little so that they can be there for it. It’s greedy, but of a socially acceptable kind of greed—like wanting to have a child.

119: You call this dying? This is nothing. Turn it up a notch.

G C-H: Your The Madeleine Poems is out now from Omnidawn (2010). Two of our best-loved Madeleines are Proust’s, and Ludwig Bemelmans’ waif naïf. Speculation has spun heaps of gold off Proust’s petite teacake, great big whopping stacks of top-heavy secondary sources. But in his diary Marcel tells us that celebrated madeleine scene from Remembrance of Things Past had less to do with the involuntary memory than with narrative mechanics. He needed a textual bridge or structural join to transport his readers to Combray. Which proves scholars spall while writers write—and for irreconcilable reasons. If Proust’s super sucre cookie installs as a strictly formal device, how does your Madeleine shake out? And I know you have a secret. Is she a textual pretext?

284: I learned about the extreme from the extreme.

PL: The secret isn’t that she’s my grandma, but it isn’t not that. Madeleine Legault was a demanding matriarch to the extent that her demands live on extant, and all of my extended family thinks of the book as her book. I guess that’s true, since I, and all of my genes exist in her domain. But like most portraits, The Madeleine Poems portrays more of myself than any of its possible subjects.

GC-H: “I is another? In The Other Poems, the first person singular pronoun presents throughout like a character in a play, your name for someone else.

366: Jesus raped me.

GC-H: Is art’s truth lying? How forgive your “transviolation” journal Telephone? Often these are willful mistranslations, slant translations—some strict, others utterly unconscionable, based on hearsay, like that kids’ game Telephone.

PL: It’s an idea and a journal, neither of which are original. We take a foreign poet and run him or her through a mill (of different translators, of different levels of knowledge, of said language) and put him or her back together. Besides the fact that Telephone existed as a children’s game long before Sharmila Cohen and I decided to start a journal under that title, there is also a wonderful precedent in Maureen Owen’s New York avant-garde journal, Telephone, which she mimeographed together thirty years ago.

Despite all these factors, it’s a journal of original work. Translation is just that.

There seems to be an experimental translation wave rising in general these days, and I’ve been collecting quotations to defend the enterprise. So I may as well un-holster a few.

Borges writes [in regards to the translation of The Thousand and One Nights]:

“To translate the spirit is so enormous and phantasmal an intent that it may well be innocuous; to translate the letter, a requirement so extravagant that there is no risk of its ever being attempted…it is [the translator’s] infidelity, his happy and creative infidelity, that must matter to us.”

José Ortega y Gasset calls translation “a literary genre apart.” Ultimately, it is about preference.

And the nature of the language opposed to liberal translation is indeed defensive—though nonetheless grand. Nabokov is adamant against it:

“I want translations with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that page so as to leave only the gleam of one textual line between commentary and eternity. I want such footnotes and the absolutely literal sense, with no emasculation.”

We must return such bombast with bombast. And here the pendulum shifts towards the “interpretive”—as the culture’s attention to it increases.

236: I don’t go to church. I am the church.

GC-H: Spies are killed by pillow talk. Smart Siamese spies split the enemy’s sympathies. When I heard you read at the Cornelia Street Café, I think on Gay Pride Day, with Wayne Koestenbaum (who had me laughing fit to be tied) among other seraphs, some of what you read were your translations of Apollinaire. That flagrant, vagrant derive . . .

PL: They’re gay poems. To transform one system of thought into another system is inherently intimate.

I think that translation is the most useful metaphor we have for love these days. So I turned Apollinaire’s Le bestiaire ou le cortège d’Orphée, Alcools, and Calligrammes into a group of dialogue-infested sonnets, a poem for each poem, or something like that.

The easy justification is that he’s not going anywhere, in terms of the modernist canon, and can suffer a reworking. The more rigorous justification is his own: “On ne peut pas porter partout avec soi le cadavre de son père.”

Thus “Zone” becomes “In the Zone,” and “Liens” becomes “The Internet,” etc. The subject speaks, and Apollinaire is in the poem’s DNA, though everything’s shifted. In translation, allusion breaks down into its basic function in order to take over the whole project like a virus.

GC-H: Paul, you maintain The Emily Dickinson Reader (Try and Make, 2009) continues a tradition. Yet you translate her English into English. That’s gotta be a first! Some of her poems you condense to a single line. You claim Joe Brainard’s I Remember as a precursor, for it’s plainchant and humor. You also cite bpNichol.

326: Heaven is so 1861.

PL: bpNichol was a small Canadian god of avant-garde poetics. Translating Translating Apollinaire is one of the seminal texts of experimental translation, and that’s where I first came to his work, though he was incredibly prolific as a prose-writer as well, not to mention his work on the TV show Fragglerock. I suppose that was actually my initial experience with his writing. We all knew him without noticing it.

TTA is a collection that begins with a single poem and reworks it over-and-over—alphabetically, anagrammatically, diagrammatically, from memory, from mimeograph, from and into a recipe book for the new translational poetics.

The idea of literal translation is simple enough, or at least the ideal of one is; the foreign language in question carries its correlates over into the domestic language in question with greater or lesser interruptions—the literal being an extreme to move toward/away from, depending on one’s palette.

When dealing with an English-to-English translation, conservation cannot be the guiding principle. If that were the case, one would, ideally, leave it alone in the first place. Or maybe the spelling could change—at the same rate as Chaucer in an Academy. Or you can turn to a thesaurus, which seems, at first, a conservative approach—but quickly ‘reveals its experimental nature’ or speedily ‘gives the low-down on its developmental essentiality’. Paraphrase is the act of writing itself.

396: They overcharged me for this drink. Story of my life.

GC-H: I’m delighted with The EDR. It’s as slapstick as the swirly. For me, it also mocks neu egghead efforts to render Emily rad. I can’t bear the maudlin maid of Amherst! Maundering minstrel spinster mewling mousey singsong jingles . . . Puh-leeze! Who crafts a virgin shut-in for role model? Give me Lizzie Borden, or the pirate Mary Read.

I remember Gregory Corso, too pie-eyed to read, wheeling past the limit’s edge at a Beat revival once in Amherst, Mass. “People wanna hear my latest poems,” he caterwauled to Allen Ginsberg, before coruscating headfirst off that stage into some folding chairs. “I’d blow hash through the skull of Edgar Allen Poe! I’d suck the dusty cunt of Emily D!”

PL: I remember CAConrad, doused in glitter, passing around a vial of clove oil at a gallery reading in Chelsea. “Apparently I don’t think there’s enough semen in contemporary poetry,” he enjoined, pressing a giant cutout letter ‘E’ to his chest in honor of Elvis. “More than anything, anything at all / I want permission from Lisa Marie to / spend one night in His bedroom, / on the floor, next to His bed, / naked, dressed in a body condom, / imagining I’m His happy little sperm…”

GC-H: “I remember, I remember.” We sound like Joe Brainard . . .

58: I hate Mondays.

GC-H: You write without apology. Some of Madeleine is Stein/Wittgenstein; post Lingo Po no trope. “it was that that was/and was left to what/it was and was not/what we think of it.” Then you dive like a turtle for pearls in the sea. † “And the dead/grew their numbers/from things named Madeleine.”

Next I will show you excerpts from The Other Poems. Please respond to them like inkblots. Tell me what you see, first, fast, and without thinking.

Counterfactuals: “Butter isn’t a form of transportation.”

PL: The end starts at the end.

GC-H: Subject-verb-object: “The wolfman chisels his silhouette against the stucco of the orange piazza.”

PL: Animals make us notice us.

GC-H: Down home homiletics: “SOUTHERN PEOPLE: What I aint aint much.”

PL: I grew up partially in the south. You can generalize. But then they include multitudes–if Southern multitudes.

GC-H: “ECHO: I will be the sea’s oven.” Which is of course to say The Other Poems are also often and in all ways as piquant as is Madeleine. “When I saw the Queen/I was running at her/With you in my arms.”

PL: All animals are orphans.

GC-H: “DUSTY TAXIDERMIC RABBIT: Your footprints look like shoes.”

PL: They do.

* From The Emily Dickinson Reader, English Translation by Paul Legault (Try and Make, 2009). Numbers correspond to the Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson (2005).

† Donovan Leitch: Sunshine Superman

Paul Legault is the author of The Emily Dickinson Reader (Try and Make, 2008), The Madeleine Poems (Omnidawn, 2010) and The Other Poems (forthcoming in 2011 from Fencebooks). With Sharmila Cohen he co-edits the translation journal Telephone.

Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle has been published in over 100 poetry journals from Action Yes to Verse. He does not write books or finished work. He is a critic at The Brooklyn Rail, Jacket, Rain Taxi, Coagula, and Purple.

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