I met Ezequiel Zaidenwerg in August, 2008. I was spending a semester in Buenos Aires as an undergraduate exchange student and he was teaching a seminar on poetry translation. At the time, I harbored vague, earnest, poetic (in the pejorative sense) notions of what the process of translation was—in fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even think of it as a “process.”
So, it came as a surprise when Ezequiel briskly set out, in the early minutes of Day One, to give us a crash course in poetic meter. The first thing I learned from him was the word “heptasyllable.” As Ezequiel presented it, translation involved a tireless kind of imagination, but one that necessarily operated within an elegant structure; it involved, for that matter, structure. You had to be a cover artist, not a composer. And you needed chops. So, first order of business: scales.
For a while, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about all this. But I came around. And as I got to know Ezequiel, as a professor and later as a friend, my enthusiasm for translation continued to grow.
When Ezequiel and I coincided in Mexico City—the city where I currently live and which is threatening to adopt Ezequiel—we decided to collaborate on the translation of several of his new poems. These poems, taken from his second book, ‘La lírica está muerta’ (Lyric Poetry is Dead, 2011), display his fierce poetic intelligence, both sprawling and precise, and his vast and focused imagination: his language, equal parts learned and off-the-cuff, manages to praise and problematize both our current (literary, cultural and political) moment and the legacies that have borne it out.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1981, Ezequiel has published one other collection of poetry—’Doxa’ (2007)—and two collections as translator: ‘Me va a encantar el siglo XXI’ (2011), poems by Mark Strand, and ‘El club del crimen’ (forthcoming), poems by Weldon Kees. He also maintains the celebrated poetry translation blog, zaidenwerg.blogspot.com, where he publishes poems newly rendered in Spanish twice a week.
In the following conversation, conducted during our time in the Mexican capital, we discussed topics of great poetic importance including, but not limited to: inspiration, freedom, Lorca and monsters.
Can you talk a bit about your most recent book, ‘La lírica está muerta’ [‘Lyric Poetry is Dead’], in terms of what prompted you to write it, how it came to be, how it’s structured?
I started writing ‘Lyric Poetry is Dead’ when I was 24 as a kind of invective against my elders. However, the project kept expanding, and, as it expanded, I myself continued to grow and change my ideas about poetry. The statement “Lyric poetry is dead” is an (ironic) quote from an Argentine poet, Alejandro Rubio, of the generation before mine, who, in an ars poetica included in the anthology ‘Monstruos’ [Monsters] that collected poets from the ‘90s, made this provocative declaration.
My initial proposal was to refute it; that said, as time went on, the book’s agenda ceased to be a defence of lyric poetry (which, in any case, doesn’t need my help or anyone else’s) and instead became an elegy for the loss of the idea of transcendence through poetry. In some way or other, the book’s thesis is that lyric poetry is a zombie — dead from the start, but continually reviving and reincarnating itself in order to terrorise us (or question us). As for its structure, it’s a unitary poem divided into thirteen narrative vignettes; in each one, lyric poetry is personified by a famous cadaver from recent Argentine history or the history of literature. As a kind of coda, the book concludes with a poem called “What Love Does Unto Poets,” which doesn’t strictly belong to the previous series, but which is intimately connected to it.
How do you think ‘Lyric Poetry is Dead’ most strikingly differs from your previous (and first) book, ‘Doxa’? To put it more broadly, what are some of the ways in which you feel you have “evolved” as a poet?
I wouldn’t know how to say whether I’ve evolved as a poet, or even if I’m really a poet, or what it means exactly to be one. Apart from that, I think that ‘Doxa’, my previous book, with the exception of the homonymous poem, was rather, on the one hand, a metrical exercise, and on the other hand an attempt to cloud the waters so that they’d appear more profound, to appropriate Nietzsche’s metaphor. Additionally, there was a conscious mission on my part to create radically different books, which has to do with trying not to fall into the comfort zones in which those who write poetry and sustain this foolish passion over the long term often fall. I firmly believe that, more than writing against tradition or against other poets, one writes against oneself.
Do you find yourself repeatedly revisiting particular “terrain” — certain subjects that continue to fascinate you, individual ideas or images, styles or forms you’re attracted to or comfortable with — over time? In other words, are there recurring motifs, or even recurring obsessions, in your work?
I suppose so. I think one (very) weak point in my poetry is the scarcity of physical images. Unfortunately, my poetic sensibility is eminently linguistic, so my poems tend to be constructed, almost without exception, from ideas (to be clear, let’s say that all have some kind of thesis); in addition, I think that what gives them poetic density, if indeed they have it, is the search for verbal imagination. Consequently, I suppose some of the elements that recur in my poems are humor, or at least a certain kind of sarcasm or irony; the mix of references from different cultural registers; and an almost unhealthy obsession with meter.
Both your poetry and your translations are always written in meter. Why? Can you describe the importance of meter as you see it?
I can’t say (although I’d certainly like to) that metered poetry is better than unmetered poetry. There are abundant examples to prove it. However, for me personally, the use of more or less established metric schemes allows me to organise myself when I write; I believe, like Luis Cernuda, that freedom isn’t of this world, and I find it impossible to write amid the chaos constituted by total boundlessness. I think that, in the field of the arts, formal limitations don’t pose a restriction, but rather a condition of possibility.
Your blog of poetry translations, zaidenwerg.blogspot.com, is widely read and respected. What has the experience of maintaining this blog been like for you — both as a translator, period, and as a kind of “messenger” among various audiences and contexts?
Well, to tell the truth, I owe the entirety of my meager literary career to the blog. Although, perhaps rightfully, I’m known almost exclusively as a translator, posting some of my poems on the blog has helped give my poetry some visibility. With respect to the experience of maintaining it, this year will mark its seventh anniversary, and the third anniversary of its religious twice-weekly updates. I should confess that there have been moments of great enthusiasm and others in which, amid the tumult of life, only my sense of duty has prevented me from abandoning the routine of publication.
As for my responsibility to the public, I don’t consider myself a “messenger” of anything. The blog was born in a period of time when I found it completely impossible to write a poem of my own, and translation helped me stay in contact with the “kitchen” of poetry. I never thought of diffusion as my objective, nor am I interested in upholding the tabernacle of the “original” as something inviolate. About the translator’s role, my creed is effectively platonic: I believe in a kind of platonic
heaven of poetry, where poems exist separately from the particular linguistic embodiment dictated by the original; the translator’s job consists of seeing those ideal forms and adapting them to the conditions of production in the given language and the context in which the translation is carried out.
What is the relationship between your work as a translator and your own writing? Do these roles directly inform each other somehow?
Yes, obviously. I suppose that the fact of writing poetry and possessing a certain technical repertoire helps me connect a little better with that platonic heaven I mentioned before. As for the second part of the question, I hope that translating such diverse poems by such distinct poets has allowed me to enrich my arsenal of poetic methods.
Poetry, like any art, strikes me as a strange social beast. On the one hand, it’s intensely solitary by nature. On the other hand, people make a lot of noise about different kinds of literary “scenes,” which of course vary by place: readings, workshops, festivals, university programs, etc. How much literary “community” — formal or informal — do you need, or do you feel comfortable with? What is the relationship between solitude and collectivity like for you?
The poetry world, like all professional communities, is contemptible by nature. It’s full of hypocrisy, envy, and resentment. However, I don’t harbor the childish illusion of being able to change it: I participate, since in order to be a writer it’s necessary to disseminate what you write, but I don’t take it too seriously. I do believe in the fundamental importance of having interlocutors one respects and hopefully admires, and fortunately I have a small group of this kind. I should also mention that it’s difficult for me to feel comfortable in the context of Argentine poetry, given that I generally don’t have anything in common with the conception of poetry that many of my compatriots tend to have, especially when it comes to the technical dimension. Strangely (or not), I’ve found in other Latin American countries, above all in Mexico, a group of poets whose work, poetic and theoretical, inspires and nourishes me.
Could you tell us some of the poets — or poems — that have been most important to you over time?
I discovered poetry when I was 15, when my high school literature professor brought a poem to class by Federico García Lorca, “Oficina y denuncia” [“Office and Denunciation”], which is part of his book Poeta en Nueva York [Poet in New York], and it made me see that there was something fascinating there, radically different from prose, which until that time I had read avidly and attempted to write. Later I discovered by chance, on the cover of a now-discontinued Argentine literary journal, a poem by Oliverio Girondo, ‘La mezcla'(The Mixture) from ‘En la masmédula’ (In the Masmédula). I didn’t know it yet, but what fascinated me about Girondo’s poem, more than his syntax and verbal experiments, was his incantatory use of rhythm. Some time later, when I bought my copy of ‘Trilce’, the incredibly famous and also experimental collection by César Vallejo, I completed my first trinity of books that inspired in me the desire to read and write poetry.
The second and more lasting revelation took place a few years after that, when I set out to read the authors of the Spanish Golden Age, from whom I finally learned classical technique. In sum, I’d say that my trajectory has gone from the avant-garde, or rather from experimental poetry (one couldn’t say that Lorca, Girondo, or Vallejo are truly avant-garde poets), toward a certain classicisim. More authors would come later, many of them from the US, whom I came to know intimately through translating them, as well as many others in my own language. In any case, as time went on, I went from thinking of poetry in terms of poets to beginning to think of it instead in terms of poems: in this sense, I firmly believe that poetry is a collective creation, a gathering of poems rather than poets; it’s for this reason that even those considered “great authors” leave only a handful of poems to posterity.