Poet Paul Legault on the slippery process of interpretation that informed his new English-to-English translation of Emily Dickinson.
Have you ever felt a desire to simplify when reading certain poetry? Maybe it comes from our wish to fully understand whatever it is the poet is trying to show us, to put it into terms that we can understand and carry around with us, or maybe it’s just fun for some other reason. Either way, when reading a poem we perform a sort of translation, taking the poet’s words and, through synthesis, replacing them with our own. This is what Paul Legault has provided in his new book, The Emily Dickinson Reader, in which he’s translated Emily Dickinson’s entire oeuvre into 1789 compact constructions, each often no more than two or three lines. He’s reduced Dickinson’s poems to their most essential meaning, skimming off all of those superfluous caesuras and meter schemes to leave us with a perfectly clarified Emily Dickinson.
Legault’s use of standard English is a funny choice for Dickinson, and the result heightens her work to an almost painful comedy. You finds yourself laughing over real poetic anguish, leafing through page after page of profound abandonment of hopes and happiness. But through this dark, dark comedy shines a certain genius. Despite the short length of most of these translations, the profundity of the originals still seems to find its way in. Just take a look at 653:
Against the apparent perpetuity of space and time, I cannot reasonably assert my individuality.
Some might be thinking: Why translate something that’s already English into more English? Well, there are a lot of reasons, and Paul was nice enough to meet with me to discuss this and other questions.
Jonathan Aprea When I read The Emily Dickinson Reader, I feel like the mode of translation that you apply to Emily Dickinson could be applied to a lot of different poets. I was wondering whether or not this mode of translation came first, or if your choice to translate Emily Dickinson came first, and why you conjoined those two things together.
Paul Legault An interesting enough answer is: simultaneously. I was in a course at UVA on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, so all we did was read Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. And when we got to the Emily Dickinson, everyone . . . it was an academic course and I was sitting in as an MFA student, and everyone in the class was digging through her biography and trying to figure out what each poem meant in terms of like, Oh, well her cousin had just died, and she wrote this poem immediately afterward, and this poem is obviously, you know, about the death of her cousin. So they would translate the poem as: I’m sad that my dead cousin is dead.
Which I found frustrating initially. I was really kind of annoyed because I was part of this cult of Emily Dickinson who prized her works as these steel-tight boxes that were meant to be beheld and not changed . . . which is insane. (laughter) I still love that version of Emily Dickinson, but I also started to fall in love with my classmates’ versions, because I thought it was funny. One poem would be like, “I really wanna have sex with Susan Gilbert Dickinson, my sister-in-law,” because she had just written this love letter the day before she wrote the poem. So people were doing this, and I would take down what they said in the margins, and then I started to think it was funny. At first I was making fun of them but then I just kept doing it. The joke became serious. So I would write these versions of Emily Dickinson. I’m interested in translating many other poets, and I’ve done that. I translated all of Williams’s Spring and All and all of Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, but differently. I usually come up with a mode that fits the book. In this case I was kind of just responding to these other people’s mode.
JA Some people who really like Emily Dickinson and really appreciate those tight, steel box poem that she created, which all look like they took her so long to write, might find it so degrading that you reduce them all to this standard English. Do you feel that way? Or do you think it’s more an act of appropriation, where it’s more related to heightening her and paying her homage?
PL Sure. There’s no way that I can ruin the originals because they are made of this thing that should not be penetrated and is thus impenetrable because of the love that it has built around it. And I’m part of that, because I love Emily Dickinson, so I thought this was just another thing, just an extension of that, which was kind of an experiment to see how far you could stray from her while still keeping her DNA. So all these poems have something of her in them, and if you believe that’s true, then there’s just more Emily Dickinson in the world, because there’s the original, and then there are these poems that have some of her in them. So it’s just kind of like, maybe a fucked up progeny of Emily Dickinson that she maybe would have never wanted? (laughter) But it did come from her. And I like to think that it’s wanted. I mean, if Emily Dickinson were alive in 2012, she’d be a different person. And I imagine we could get along. But yeah, I have been getting some flack.
JA What kind of flack have you gotten?
PL Well, it’s kind of embarrassing, but in this day and age, most people have a Google alert on their name. I don’t know if that’s true or not but I have a Google alert on my name, which is a horrible idea, so I find out whatever anyone says.
JA So it’s in blogs and things like that?
PL Amazon reviews.
JA Oh that’s funny.
PL The bad responses that have arrived at my door are from people who haven’t actually read the book, but don’t like the idea. They think it sounds derogatory. But anyone who reads the book hopefully will see, through my introduction and through all of the context around the poems that I do love her. One of my translations, “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun–,” I couldn’t do—it didn’t make sense to me. Every time I tried to parse it, it failed. I just gave up and pointed directly to Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, which has a 30 page chapter going through that poem and being drowned by it and coming up on top and kind of exploring it. And I respect that model too. I don’t know, hopefully if they actually get the book they’ll see that it’s more than just the idea of offending Emily Dickinson.
JA I think it is. At face value, if you read one poem it might just seem like a very direct, very basic translation of what Emily Dickinson is getting at, but then you might read one that’s just extremely hard to get your head around, and it kind of opens up the poem in this new way.
PL I tried to interrupt it, interrupt that initial response. My version of “Wild nights!” is actually half a page long, as opposed to the one-liners, and it’s kind of insane to me that what is written there is currently being presented inside of a humor book, because it’s a half page prose poem about sexual intercourse, and then it’s in combination with all of these other one liners, so this thing is being pitched as a comedy when hopefully it’s a little more than that.
JA There are certain strings in it that are just hilarious. You can’t get around that—
PL Good. (laughter)
JA But I feel like it was partially intentional.
PL Yeah, yeah—
JA To have some things that are funny. But at the same time there is some very dark humor, and then there are also just very serious and beautiful things as well.
PL But I want it to be funny. I hope it’s funny.
JA I think one reason people might initially label it as funny is because of the idea of an English to English translation, as though that’s a quirky thing to do, because usually we associate translation as being between two [different] languages. What do you think of that—do you think there is a reaction of surprise to hear that something is translated from English to English? And did you expect that?
PL I feel like I’ve been using the term English-to-English translation for a while, because since I’ve been writing these I’ve just been calling them that. And often, whenever I mention that term, people’s responses are usually to say, “Oh, I get it, like this other thing . . . ” that they then recommend me and then point out to me, and so I actually have a nice library of other works that are doing things like this.
JA So it does happen a lot.
PL Yeah, I think it happens a lot, and it’s not always labeled as humor, of course. It’s kind of—you could describe the whole tradition of poetry being passed down as a translation of the older generation.
JA Yeah, that’s something that I keep coming back to.
PL So, as a metaphor it makes a lot of sense. And people do it a lot too. Leslie Scalapino translated a number of Shakespeare’s plays into these gorgeous, disjunctive poems. And they’re not comedic, but the act is taking place in many genres.
JA There’s a stylistic shift with The Emily Dickinson Reader compared to your last book of poetry, The Other Poems. I feel like the success of that collection of poetry was contingent on this poetic exercise that flips the world upside down by giving inanimate objects and inanimate ideas a speaking role, and making them come to life and partake in dialogue. But this collection is more or less prosaic. There are some very poetic ways that you go about this translation, but I feel like some of the things that you might classify as poetry are absent. So, I guess my question is, why this shift?
PL Well, I really like thinking about the narrative of my publications being a real thing, but in some ways it’s slightly random. I wrote this book at the same time I was writing The Other Poems. So I would write this one day and write this other thing another day. I was thinking about both projects simultaneously. And I’m curious about what’s missing, what are the signs that it is poetry, because I feel like there’s no way that I could have written it that it wouldn’t be poetry. I was starting with a poet [Dickinson], and writing text. But it’s true, I have been thinking since The Other Poems more and more about texts as textual art, and thus, anything that isn’t a novel or a screenplay or a play or nonfiction, etc. that can’t be categorized, is often included in poetry.
John Cage’s writings on music, or Buckminster Fuller’s writings on the industrial revolution are often uncategorizable, so often they’re just read by poets. I feel like I can be pretty flexible and still consider things poetry.
JA That piece that you recently wrote about Jane Fonda, I was surprised to see that it was filed under poetry. It almost seemed like an essay to me. Kind of like a very obscure French-style essay.
PL That I had written I guess five years ago, before I had written any of these manuscripts. But my boyfriend liked that poem, and he told me to read it, so I did and then Melissa decided to publish it, which is lovely. I think it is more of an essay than a poem. But I don’t know if it furthers the narrative of the past three books. It’s a prequel to them.
JA I also notice, especially in The Emily Dickinson Reader, and a little bit in The Madeleine Poems, that you rely sometimes on language that has a certain scientific validity to it. I bookmarked a passage in The Emily Dickinson Reader, 387, where you talk about the gravitational force of the moon and basically describe, in very technical language, what causes the tides, and then you relate that to sexuality. It’s kind of like anti-poetic language.
PL Yeah, I feel like it’s actually a traditional relationship for poets to fetishize the language of science, the same way they fetishize the language of philosophy. Stevens took that as his model and wrote these pseudo-philosophical ruminations. I don’t know. I do like scientific jargon, and I come across it more and more now than I did before, because almost every commonplace term or thought or phrase that you click on on the Internet leads you to its Wikipedia page, which gives you the scientific make-up of it, sometimes sloppily. But it’s actually the sloppiness of that language that I like. For both books, appropriation is just the method of them. So it seemed appropriate to appropriate that as well.
JA The only other question I had about Emily Dickinson was a very vague one, but I was just very interested in how much of this book is about death and symbolic immortality and things like that.
PL Death is an interesting topic, and I think that any write—every writer—writes about it. Dickinson is kind of an extreme case. She wrote about death a lot. That said, there was a lot of death going on in the 19th century, so if you’re going to tweet about what’s happening, death is what’s happening. But it is a good question. Someone asked me to explain to what level this book is autobiographical.
JA For Emily Dickinson or for you?
PL For me. They’re like, you’re in this book, this is about you. And I’m like, no . . . because I don’t think about death that much, except when I’m writing this book. So, yes and no. In the back of the book there’s an index, one of which is the first lines of all of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Another is an index by theme, in which I grouped the poems into subjects, and death has a lot of numbers next to it.
JA That’s interesting that someone would think that it was autobiographical for you. But at the same time, you can see how that might make sense from a philosophical standpoint.
JA When you think about the Other, and translating the Other, and that kind of being a manifestation of your own personal self . . .
PL Yeah . . . that’s too deep (laughter)
JA So, your translation of John Ashbery is very different from your translation of Emily Dickinson, and we talked a little bit about that earlier. Why did you choose that mode of translation for Ashbery?
PL Well, there are a number of reasons. One is that I wanted to use a different mode for each book. So there’s that. And two is that each time I do this, it’s an act of honoring their work, but it’s also an act of exorcising them from my work, because I’m obsessed with them, and some things that they do I keep doing, and I’m tired of it. Like with Ashbery, there were a lot of tropes in my poetry that were Ashberian, without me even noticing it, just because I had read a lot of his work. And because it was popular, that mode of his, which I explored and tried to figure out. It made sense to use him, and I had been obsessed with the idea of a memory translation after reading bpNichols’s Translating Translating Apollinaire, in which he translates the first poem he ever got published 30 different ways. One of them is an acrostic version of it, one of them is rearranging all of the letters so that they’re in alphabetical order, one of them is rewriting it from memory, which I found to be one of the more intimate strategies of his.
JA So this was all translated from memory?
PL Yeah, well memory is 100% made of memory. I read it, and then I wrote it. So I would read a poem, and then I would write a poem. So yeah, from memory.
JA So how many times have you read John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror?”
PL Probably like eight times, ten times. Not an absurd amount. Part of the project was that it is difficult to memorize John Ashbery’s poetry, because it’s part of his project to create works that defy the memory and keep you on these individual planes of thought that shift at every line, and don’t form a complete sentence. And there’s something about that that lets you into an anterior or interior space. Which is beautiful. So it made sense for me to try to do it and to necessarily fail to write the exact book from memory. Because I was interested in the differences.
JA Why would you call it a failure?
PL Because in theory, the mission of translating something from memory is to write down the original version exactly as it is.
JA But that would be boring, right?
PL A: it’s boring, and B: it’s impossible. And yeah, the idea of failure is beautiful. The American idea of failure is that it’s not what you want unless it leads to some sort of post-triumph, so whether it’s a failure that then leads to this triumph of having learned something, or whether it’s just a failure, it was fun.
JA The reason I ask is because I recall reading something where you had called The Madeleine Poems a failed portrait. And I couldn’t wrap my head around what a successful portrait would be. At least in terms of poetry.
PL Me neither. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it might be if you write enough poems about the same person, they would constellate and give you an outline of that whole person. And maybe you can create more of a map of the person, but you can’t create a successful portrait in the sense that it looks exactly like them, is them, and explains all of them.
JA. Do you think that this could be considered a portrait of Emily Dickinson?
PL Yes. A failed portrait.
JA Or maybe even a more accessible portrait.
PL Yeah, I don’t think of it as being what I think she was like.
JA (laughter) I hope not.
PL I don’t know. I couldn’t capture all of her. I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t know where to put it.
JA Back to Ashbery for a second—I feel like your choice of translating “Self-Portrait” was particularly apt in terms of all of his works, and I was wondering if there was a reason for your decision to translate that specific poem.
PL You’re right. It was that poem that I wanted to translate. So I had to do the whole book to get to it. The book is made up of that one essential titular poem, and then all of these shorter poems that lead up to it, one to two pages long. But I wanted to translate the self-portrait one because it was the one that haunted me the most, that I wanted to exorcise out of me the most. That’s the main reason. But it’s also the poem of the 20th century by a lot of people’s standards. I mean, it’s in competition with “Howl” and “The Wasteland” and all these others, but it’s one of them.
JA I feel like “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is Ashbery responding to the work of art itself, translating this painting into a text, and his interpretation of the painting into a text, and then you take it a step further and translate his interpretation of the painting into your interpretation of his interpretation of the painting, and I don’t know, I appreciated that. I was wondering if you were thinking about that.
PL Yeah, definitely. The poem is about him thinking about what Parmigianino thought about this reflection of himself. So it goes even one step deeper. When I was writing it, it was easy to write from memory because what wasn’t remembered of his was filled in by my thoughts about his work and about this conversation about art, so it was really easy to stay on that rhetorical level that he’s mastered, because it’s where he’d led my thoughts to. It’s particularly meta, it’s true.
JA Do you write any plays or screenplays?
PL I’ve written four screenplays and a couple of plays, but a long time ago, so I don’t think about them too much. But I recently got Final Draft from the Internet, which is a screenwriting software program.
JA I didn’t know there was such a thing.
PL It’s kind of ridiculous, but it keeps the formatting. It’s a basic program. But yeah, because I was thinking about it. I’ve been trying to shift between genres. I’ve been writing a novel.
JA You have? That was my last question. What is next for Paul Legault?
PL I’ve been working on a lot of things simultaneously. Which isn’t exactly the best method, but it’s my method, so I’ve been writing a novel. It’s bricolaged from Virginia Woolf, so almost 80 percent of it is written by Virginia Woolf, just stolen and rearranged into a puzzle to create a new novel, and some of it’s written by me to fill in the gaps. And all the character names are changed to sync up. It’s a very boring novel but very beautifully written because I didn’t write it. (laughter)
JA I was also wondering—do you think that The Emily Dickinson Reader is going to make people who haven’t read Emily Dickinson and don’t really care about her, pick her up?
PL That’s my favorite part. I just saw a Youtube video set in a classroom, and there was an older woman and a younger woman, and one of them read a Dickinson poem and another one read my poem, and they were laughing. They were reading Dickinson and enjoying it. I felt like I tricked them.
JA It’s true. Sometimes, at least for high school kids, reading an Emily Dickinson poem can be so. . . it stands so much in contrast to everything we’re used to.
PL Which is why it’s so necessary.
Read BOMB’s previous interview with Legault here.
Jonathan Aprea is a writer and a photographer. He lives in Brooklyn.