I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“The book can draw in different audiences without catering to them. There’s a kind of rigorous hospitality, an aperture for dialogue.”
When you read Uljana Wolf’s Subsisters: Selected Poems, just released by Belladonna Press, “you must prepare for the blurprint.” This made-up word (along with others like it) alerts us to the fact that Wolf and her translator Sophie Seita “smudge” language, slip in and out of German and English, or dwell in the space between. Their collaboration is electric. Wolf and Seita conjure up a realm where linguistic mix-ups and deliberate slips and ambiguities are new sources of revelation. I’ve been waiting for a book with the line, “We’re at the Ende der Welt.” Taken from Wolf’s previous German poetry collections, including falsche freunde (KOOKbooks, 2009) and meine schönste lengevitch (KOOKbooks, 2013), Subsisters insists on a new way of reading.
Our interview took place at the Hungarian Pastry Shop in New York City, punctuated by the noisy din of conversations in German and French, as well as awkward first-date lingo. Seita’s tea never arrived. A series of insistent calls kept interrupting us. “Make sure you put that in there,” Seita told me. It seemed only fitting when discussing a book that disrupts the sanctified territory of monolingualism.
Zoe Brezsny This book comes at a critical time in contemporary poetry. In the New York poetry scene, many people are devoted to “making sense.” Subsisters subverts that intention. It retains some of the German from Wolf’s original text, usually in playful ways that are lyrical though not necessarily logical. The reader is asked to inhabit a space in-between English and German. What do you think is at stake in bringing this work to the scene?
Sophie Seita New York is an ideal place to bring out a book that already “thinks translationally.” Uljana lives in Berlin and Brooklyn, both incredibly diverse places. She grew up in East Berlin, and through this “internal migration” from East Germany to a unified Germany she’s become intimately familiar with the boundaries of nation-states, and how these boundaries determine language, ideology, questions of belonging, but also very practical concerns like travel, products, and education. So she thinks a lot about multilingualism, migration, place, and origin, and she’s a translator herself. Her poetry doesn’t make the foreign more familiar but rather approximates it critically and playfully.
I’ve never been very convinced by this fashion for “place” in some contemporary writing if all it means is some vague gesture or index without thinking through the implication of being “placed” somewhere, or if it’s a stand-in for “local flavor,” which turns the poet into a tourist. Subsisters, and her earlier chapbook, i mean i dislike that fate that i was made to where(Wonder), operate against the idea that there’s a “correct” language, an officially sanctioned one that governs the page, and by extension, its author and readers.
ZB How does this book think “translationally”?
SS The title sequence is a series of prose poems that feature a supposedly original poem (including lines inspired by a Hollywood movie that Uljana watched in English with German subtitles) and a second poem as its distorted translation. It’s a subtitle that rewrites or deliberately misunderstands the first, but such boundaries between original and translation blur when Uljana translates herself translating. My process then involved translating Uljana’s translation back into English, and adding a third, supposedly “English,” version. It’s sort of a Möbius strip of multiple, equally valid versions of one another.
These small displacements and mishearings create a rhythmically rich texture that is incredibly witty and illuminating about how language (and language-learning) works. The original-subtitles turn the stereotypical femme fatale from the 1940s and 1950s Hollywood movies into confident, witty, and independent heroines The cognitive surplus, experienced through a temporal disjuncture when watching a film with subtitles, is in fact at the heart of bilingual poetic thinking, which these poems bear out.
ZB You don’t need to know German to engage with Subsisters.
SS Uljana and I were talking recently about how I have absorbed some of Germany’s cultural context without necessarily having read what Uljana read in preparation for her books. There are references to Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, for instance, whose work I know a little bit but not the pieces Uljana refers to. When I then translated those allusions, they might still have the same resonances or they might not.
You have to accept that the original reference might disappear, but other meanings will emerge in its place. Édouard Glissant compares translation to the composition of a fugue—a melody introduced by one instrument or voice and then taken up by another, repeated in a different pitch, and accompanied by a counterpoint. So I’m kind of singing alongside Uljana in this built-in permutation and transformation of translation.
ZB I don’t speak German, but I can still appreciate the language for what it is, rich and evocative. When you first started translating it, did you worry about it not making sense?
SS (Laughing) Worried that people wouldn’t understand the book? No. We need to give readers more credit. There are many different forms of “understanding.” Uljana’s and my experience is that language—any language—actually escapes you and never fully “makes sense.” We were trying to capture that in both books and bring out the strangeness inherent in language. It’s like laying a language trail that leads into many different directions. I don’t want to discredit work that is more straightforward and less “difficult,” but writing of that kind can sometimes seem too idyllically orderly as if poetry was a sanctified space where everything falls into place.
ZB What made you take on this project?
SS In 2013, I went to a poetry festival in Germany, and Uljana’s work was the only work that appealed to me, perhaps because it reminded me of some contemporary British and American poetry. I was also attracted to her playfulness, the poems’ ambiguities, her mixing of languages. She really does some proper thinking in and through poetry, rather than just using poetry as self-expression. I immediately felt like there was something critical and necessary about her work. So I wrote to her, and it turned out that we lived two blocks from each other in Brooklyn and we became friends. She asked me about a translation someone else had done of her work and I thought I could do this too.
ZB Sometimes authors disagree with their translators. Or the translator is extra careful about wanting to preserve the poetry and not interfere. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between the translation and the original. These poems reveal a sense of intimacy though, like poet and translator really understand each other.
SS I felt very comfortable with the text. Sometimes Uljana would tell me what she’d had in mind, but she also fully supported the choices I made in English. She would never be prescriptive. She’s translated American and Polish poets into German, so she knows that it’s important for the author to let go of the work and to trust that something new and interesting will emerge in the translation.
ZB What was the most difficult section to translate?
SS Uljana’s work contains a lot of word and sound play. That’s tricky to translate. While any “finished” poem is the result of numerous choices, a translation holds these possibilities tantalizingly right under your nose.
Rosmarie Waldrop said in an interview that she sometimes looks back on lines she translated from the French and thinks “now that doesn’t really make sense anymore,” but that realization pleases her because it means that she’s moved on and is able to think about the text in a new way. She welcomes the openness that comes with translation.
ZB It’s not stale.
SS Yes. Sometimes I just had to accept that a word or phrase would have to be radically different from the original. Puns in German don’t always translate into English. When Uljana intermingles English and German, she can rely on her German audience to know English fairly well and to get many of the cultural references.
I’ll sometimes introduce a German word or a word that might sound similar in English, or use a French word. That’s why sound is so important to the translation and to Uljana’s work in general. The sound can carry you through when you’re lost. There may be parts you don’t understand, but you can go back, reread, and maybe you have to look things up. You have to do some work (laughs). That’s a good thing. A reader should be doing some work.
ZB I love the sound play that crescendos in “babeltrack: notes on a lengevitch.” Lines like, “cloud thicket, light-locks, iris-gaps, irritant traps, through which all me slips in…” and then, “i mean timing, a kind of conversation-smudging, where you must prepare for the blurprint, so as to get a blur or berry in, right, but you’re just sitting there and other hevva juicy red chin….” When you translated the word “berry” to correspond with “blur,” was that an intuitive choice?
SS Earlier in the poem the “blueprint” becomes a “berryprint” because of some pun on the Spanish v-sound which sounds close to a “b,” so if “very” was a Spanish word, it would sound a little like “berry.” So I added another pun by turning the blueprint into a berry-smudged “blurprint,” especially because “blur” encapsulated so much of what Uljana was doing in the poem.
Rather than being as close as possible to Uljana’s German, my translation tries to get at the spirit of what she’s doing, by playing with language in the same way. If I hadn’t taken liberties with the translation, I wouldn’t have done justice to Uljana’s poetics and I would’ve been a little bored perhaps, too.
ZB Subsisters conveys a precision of language despite its surreal elements.
SS I respond well to poetry that allows for the writer’s history of reading to surface and when it engages with tradition (though not “traditional” in terms of meter, syntax, etc.). You can tell when someone has read beyond the field of contemporary poetry.
ZB I like when poets are able to engage with writers of the past and bring them into conversation with social and political topics that are occurring today.
SS And to know that poetic form has a history. When you use certain abstractions, syntactic fragmentation, or even open-field poetics, the spaces on the page have a history. You can do that unknowingly now, but I like when I can tell that there’s deliberateness in form; the comma is there for a reason, the line break is there for a reason. There’s a lot of explicitly political poetry that I agree with ideologically, but I don’t necessarily like the form. It’s astonishing how deeply the expectation of sense-making, of needing absolute answers, still dominates.
Between 2015 and 2016, I taught a class about print history at NYU. We talked about Dada and I showed my students a collage from 1916. And several students said the form was total chaos. They couldn’t relate to it and I was really surprised. There is still a resistance to the somewhat opaque, the difficult. They asked me why someone would choose to do that. It’s a good question actually. If taken seriously, it can lead to fascinating insights about intention, tradition, expectations, and the politics (or perceived politics) of form.
ZB We come from an educational system that says there’s a particular way of doing things, a right and a wrong approach, which still finds its way into literature and art.
SS What I strive for as a translator, a writer, a critic, and what Uljana does really well in her work, is to make Subsisters relatable even for readers who don’t have a background in experimental poetry. The book can draw in different audiences without catering to them. There’s a kind of rigorous hospitality, an aperture for dialogue.
ZB There’s a lot of talk about maintaining timelessness in poetry. For example, not taking on certain political issues or not using pop culture references because they won’t last, won’t fit into the canon. Subsisters is unusual in that it takes the poetic risk of currency and yet it has timeless aspects too.
SS The thing to remember is there are different types of canons. You might not make it into one, but that’s probably because you don’t want to go to that kind of party anyway.
I don’t think you can manufacture a timeless work, and if you could, that would just kill it. You can’t predict the future; you don’t know what will last in poetry. All you can do is try to write the best you can.
ZB ”Böbrach,” for example, takes place in the Bavarian forest and sheds light on the isolation of asylum seekers. It could be set in the past or it could be now.
SS The poem refers to a specific refugee center in Bavaria that made the German news a few years ago, but it could be anywhere. It both speaks to our current political climate and a long, long history of diaspora, uprootedness, borders, and the impossibility of a homeland. In “Stationary,” there’s a great line in homage to Nelly Sachs: “no one | ever saw the homelands go home.”
ZB I am interested in how both you and Uljana convey a freedom beyond the rational, an innate subverting of the rational agenda.
SS When Uljana’s first daughter was born, she had writer’s block for a while, so in the sequence titled “Babeltrack” you have a silent mother figure with a child who is full of sounds and a bubbling language that the mother tries to translate. A freedom that I allow myself in translation is that I use compounds fairly generously—a form that is ubiquitous in German. It’s like a metaphor for translation: you put nouns together and they become a new noun but the individual parts retain their own sense in a way, so I’m adopting that in my English.
ZB I love the grammar play in the book, because grammar can be controlling.
SS Absolutely. There is a grammatically correct way of speaking, but poetry is a space for introducing small disruptions. There’s a line in one of the “annalogues” that reads, “those little glimmering glitches…” which epitomises what’s going on in the poetry. Something the system didn’t expect or didn’t want to happen. A stutter or blur on the screen…
ZB Poetry should be a place of freedom and throughout history it’s been used as a revolutionary tool to speak out against the system. In American poetry there’s so much policing. People are afraid to say certain things. A criticism I heard of the Gurlesque Movement is that to be abject is anti-feminist, like that form of feminism is demeaning to women. I personally think that women should have the freedom to revolt in whatever way is positive for them. Who wants to have one kind of revolt? Maybe this is truer within academic circles but nowadays there seems to be a right and wrong even in poetry.
SS Some people only write things that are likely to get published or likely to give them access to a certain community (though they’re not necessarily conscious of that goal).
ZB In these poems the language mirrors the ambiguity and gender fluidity of the characters. You can’t pin down who is speaking.
SS The poem “on classification in language, a feeble reader,” for instance, is a reflection on gender construction and regimentation in East Germany where Uljana grew up. It focuses on gender identity through the constraints of grammar: different linguistic classifications, word “classes” like nouns, adverbs, and adjectives are mapped onto questions about ideology and gender in the GDR. In the title sequence “Subsisters” this is even more explicit, even more fluid, as cliché as that sounds.
ZB I like that.
SS Yes, fluidity is the good kind of cliché.
Zoe Brezsny is a poet and editor from Oakland, California who now lives in Brooklyn. She received a BA from California College of the Arts and an MFA from Columbia University. Her writing can be found in SFAQ, Prelude, Queen Mob’s, and Tin House. A box of her poetry is forthcoming from TABLOID Press in spring 2018. Brezsny hosts a weekly radio show of international pop, space disco, acid rock, and experimental bedroom projects on WFMU.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee