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Literature : Interview

Paul Legault

by Julia Guez

Julia Guez The epigraph for The Madeleine Poems—“Many of us go farther. My pathetic Crusoe”—is from Emily Dickinson, and the collection ends with “Madeleine as Crusoe.” At points between—“Madeleine as Heroine,” for example—you seem to be very much in conversation with Dickinson (or in widerruf, as Lucie Brock-Broido would say). How has your work on the English-to-English translations in The Emily Dickinson Reader, Volume I (Try & Make, 2009) influenced your work with Madeleine?

Paul Legault I was writing both projects simultaneously, though I’ve never thought of them as being in conversation with each other. That’s not to say they aren’t.

The Dickinson translations are a joke that became serious—or at least became an extended joke that wasn’t over until I “translated” all 1789 of them into basic English. The Madeleine Poems is just that—a bunch of poems about ‘Madeleine.’ Both projects are a little obsessed with a feminine figure. And both ladies of said obsessions resist their own portrait. So there’s that.

Everyone’s “in widerruf” with Dickinson, really. People are ready for her—for queers and vampires and the two in combination. (I would include E. D. in both camps.) People are tired of the sacred the same way Dickinson was tired of it—if still obsessed with its possibility. Of course when I say “people,” I mean me.

The epigraph to The Madeleine Poems is from a letter (L685) Dickinson wrote to one of her relatives about an article she read in the local newspaper: “A Little Boy ran away from Amherst a few Days ago, and when asked where he was going, replied, ‘Vermont or Asia.’ Many of us go farther. My pathetic Crusoe.”

Crusoe is the great role model of all boy-adventurers with no destination in mind but desertion. You don’t need a real destination in mind to leave. Dickinson is another great role model for said adventurers.

I guess the two projects are in conversation the same way that Vermont and Asia were to the young deserter—two options for the same goal.

By the end of each, I’d kind of given into the necessary fragmentation involved in any literary portrait. When your muse is also your subject, you sort of have to. Maybe that’s what the conversation they’re having is about—in collusion against me.

JG Something I admire about Madeleine (and The Madeleine Poems) is the ability to inhabit so many different contexts—high and low—so effortlessly. You draw on a range of resources, lexical and aesthetic, to convince us that a portrait of Madeleine as Travelogue is as apt as the portrait of Madeline as Home, and the portrait of Madeleine as Mathematician is as apt as the portrait of Madeleine as Pornographer, Yeoman, Iditarod, Sister and Supply. So who is Madeleine anyway? How and why did she so effectively inspire this brilliant collection of poetry (and a dedication to boot)?

PL I like that she/it is already a lot of things—Proust’s cookie and Bemelman’s cartoon being two popular manifestations, though Apollinaire had a Madeleine (Pagès), his fiancée during WWI who owns the dedications to many of his Calligrammes. Apparently, Madeleine is also an object persistence layer written in the Ruby programming language. And my Granny is named Madeleine.

My old professor Charles Wright told me to hide the latter M., but I think it’s almost a moot point. The book has little to do with her—the facts of her life, how she used to make the worst cakes, speak her mind, speak in the third-person, etc.—except to say that ‘Madeleine’ carries the weight of a matriarch, in addition to the weight of a flea, or a house, or any of the other things she “inhabits.” I put her in the habitats, but she’s not mine.

When I was studying screenwriting, we used to develop character outlines for our films’ protagonists. There was always something distasteful about it—besides the fun of deciding which foods he/she was allergic to, which color his/her wallpaper was, the middle-name of his/her cat, etc.. If they didn’t have a flaw to be eventually overcome through the arc of the plot, then you couldn’t start. A “good character” required direct force.

But if you line all the partial details up anyway, a figure shows. Enough layers make a structure. The fact that some of the elements are proper and some mundane is kind of inevitable at this point. Equating the high with the low isn’t a new accomplishment, but it is one that we should keep.

JG The act of naming, the necessariness and impossibility of understanding ourselves, understanding one another and the world by way of language seems to be a central theme in the collection. In “Madeleine as Yeoman,” you say “Name a season ‘Sally,’ and it smiles.” In “Madeleine as Portrait of Walt Whitman as Gertrude Stein as Stripper,” “There’s no such name, but you come close.” In “Madeleine as the New Frontier” (which seems to be drawing on the diarism of one Christopher Columbus), the piece begins, “We had no name for it.” And, of course, in “Madeleine as White Country,” the impulse will reach a pitch: “Give it names, / names for names’ sake.” What particular importance do you associate with the act of naming, the simultaneous importance and limitation of accurately naming “this world of things— / this world of which / we cannot say in words of—”?

PL It’s disorienting for me to see all those phrases next to each other at once. I know I circle it, the idea of naming things—most poets do—but I didn’t realize how many times I used the word itself. Though it’s hard to come up with a better name for “name” than “name.”

I was lucky to be named the winner of Omnidawn’s poetry prize by the poet and critic Ann Lauterbach. And here I’m lucky to turn to some of her criticism to guide my response. She writes, in “As (It) Is: Toward a Poetics of the Whole Fragment” (American Women Poets in the 21st Century, ed. Claudia Rankine & Juliana Spahr):

The
reader/listener participates in the construction of significance
not
by filling in
the
gaps and elisions, but by appropriating whatever fragment is “useful”
to her.

…I
have a love for
this
construct of
a
normalizing stability [syntax], but I recognize its habit of formulating, at
the
least
impulse,
categorical
imperatives that obscure and resist the actual conditions,
possibilities,
and
complexities
in which we find ourselves.

A name names a thing, unless it names a person. A person is a sort of thing, but the name of that person isn’t. A ‘Paul’ or a ‘Julia’ isn’t necessarily listed in the dictionary. A proper name is a complex which is either personal or meaningless—meaningless in that it could mean anything/-one. You make a word-machine that makes a person.

Duchamp did a better job at portraiture when he designed his Bride-Machine:

Though it’s a little problematic in its portrayal of women, to say the least. There’s something romantic, in the old sense, about misogyny. And maybe that’s why the romantics can be so annoying. Not that Duchamp was one. He was stricter than that. He made everything from scratch—which includes a “wasp sex cylinder” and the bride’s reservoir of “love gasoline.”

I don’t think I made The Madeleine Poems from scratch. I owe a lot, and maybe it’s the only way to pay tribute to the lyric tradition—to write a book with Poems in the title and little poems inside of the book, obsessed with a figure. Or maybe it’s just about my grandmother and I should admit that.

JG You are a very busy man, Mr. Legault. You work full-time at the Academy of American Poets, pen award-winning collections of poetry, co-found and edit Telephone, translate, among others, Apollinaire, give and attend myriad readings and events and launch parties, and still manage also to be an exceptional human being—as in, son, partner, uncle, friend, and so on. How do you keep everything in balance? When and how, given all you do, do you manage to create time and space to write? (And what advice do you have to help others keep everything in balance as well?)

PL In the grand New York tradition, I write at lunch. And at midnight. I’m not working at those times, and I’m usually alone, or else my husband Orion is writing in his nook across the room as well. I don’t believe in keeping those times sacred, though I’ve become addicted to writing every day. It’s habit now—and there are plenty of writers to promote that sort of consistency as a virtue. I don’t care to.

Though it helps to say you’re productive even when you’re not. If you’re a good lapsed Catholic and guilt fuels you, then lying to people will heap it on higher. I mostly just find it boring to say that I’m not writing. Trust me or not, I am.

Translation is a good way of trucking forward despite yourself. If you’re writing through a book, you have the advantage of momentum—the same kind that builds when you’re reading it. The next poem comes next.

Starting a translation journal was easy enough; keeping it up is the challenge/reward. I have a partner in crime, Sharmila Cohen. It’s easier to tie yourself to the mast if you can tie each other’s knots. (I think I just mixed too many metaphors.)

Telephone begets more Telephone‘s. And that begets more work. But more work begets an audience, and grant proposals (so I hear). There’s a disjointed circle of information and projects being passed around, and if you enter it, the circuit turns on. There’s a growing audience for translation and, even more so, distranslation.

Hugh Kenner describes Ezra Pound’s notorious mistranslations as an evolution of the form. And evolution is a useful metaphor for it. Kenner illustrates his description with a couple of fish:

Both fish are the same fish at every point. But the grid shifts:

“Poems cohere, as do fish, and yet are derivable from other poems…’Influence’ is no longer the relevant metaphor…” (Kenner, The Pound Era, 169)

The original fish stays original. But the new fish is an original as well.

I don’t know why I approached the question of balance by bringing up the question of translation, except that it’s guiding my future projects. My writing life is necessarily unbalanced. It leans in favor of what’s next.

Paul Legault’s poems have been published in Denver Quarterly, Maggy, Supermachine, and other journals. He is the co-founder and co-editor of the translation journal Telephone. His first book, The Madeleine Poems, is just out from Omnidawn. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband Orion Jenkins and works at the Academy of American Poets. Listen to Phoned-In #13 which features issue #1 of Telephone.

After five years of service with Teach For America, Julia Guez is now living and working in New York City. New verse is soon to appear in Anamesa, Court Green and Washington Square.

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Poetry
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