Micrograms by Elizabeth Clark Wessel

Elizabeth Clark Wessel interviews Alejandro de Acosta and Joshua Beckman, the translators of Jorge Carrera Andrade’s Micrograms. They discuss Western engagements with haiku, Andrade’s subtle gestures, and the challenges of collaborative translation.


In November Wave Books will release Micrograms by the now mostly forgotten Ecuadorian poet Jorge Carrera Andrade (1903-1976), in a new translation by Alejandro de Acosta and Joshua Beckman. Micrograms is simultaneously a work of literary criticism, a poetry collection, and a translation (or in English, a translation of a translation). The result is a meditation on form, with implications for how the creative process could be used as a mode of inquiry. The form in question, the microgram—a term coined by Andrade, though explicitly not invented—is “an epigram … reduced in volume, enriched by complex modernity, widened to every thing that makes up the vital chorus of the earth,” with forebears in forms as disparate as the classical epigram, the saeta, and the haiku. In three sections Andrade convinces us of the microgram’s heritage, illustrates the form with original work, and then ends, surprisingly, with translations of classic and modern haiku into Spanish (translated without the aid of the Japanese by Acosta and Beckman into English). The outlook is idiosyncratically international.

This is the second collaborative translation published by Acosta and Beckman, and I corresponded with them about this remarkable, tiny book and the process of translating it.

Elizabeth Clark Wessel How did the two of you first discover Micrograms, and why did you decide to make a new translation of it?

Alejandro de Acosta & Joshua Beckman I (Alejandro) found a mention of Micrograms as one of the first Western engagements with haiku. I enjoyed it tremendously and I wanted to share it with Joshua so we could talk about the poems and the ideas. We have been reading books together for years. We had finished translating 5 Meters of Poems by Carlos Oquendo de Amat (published by Ugly Duckling Presse) and had been thinking about doing another project together. This book was not only a pleasure to read, but seemed to address many of the ideas of form and translation that we had already been talking about. At the time there was no other English version available and it seemed like an exciting book to work on.

ECW I enjoyed Andrade’s engagement with form immensely, but I was unclear about the relationship he thought these forms (haiku, saeta, microgram) have to each other. For example, he describes and analyzes the haiku beautifully (“ … an original concept of existence. A poetic thought. A philosophical meditation.”), but in connecting it historically with the microgram he leaves the work to a future scholar (“How did the haiku arrive in our America? It is a matter for patient research.”). I understand that within the confines of a lyric essay there isn’t really room for that kind of work, but do you have some ideas about the role Andrade thought that translation and cross-pollination played in literary development? Or, in other words, could you say more about what Micrograms told you about translation?

ADA & JB Well, we actually think that to some extent he wants to leave it open. “Patient research” can be understood as thought and writing as well as study. While selecting and introducing haiku, Andrade was aware of haiku writing in the Americas, but chose neither to fully research its history, nor (more importantly) to participate in it as a writer. Micrograms are clearly something else. They are, among other things, the inspired fusion of the objectivity and attention of haiku with the sentimentality and wit of short forms in Spanish and other European languages. Though Andrade defines the form with some precision, his own contributions (which presumably have the status of exemplars) are only one possible version of micrograms, and his movement through other Spanish works, finding (at times retroactively) short forms is a way of pointing to a kind of unresearchable simultaneity, a connection of interests born out of the parallel lives of poets in different traditions.

For us, much of what Andrade is doing is watching the trajectory of forms and processes and trying to imagine them in new contexts (which could be a description of translating, writing poems, or even being an artist interested in anything beyond the local). It is interesting to remember that this book only addresses some of Andrade’s concerns at the time, and that he was (while in Japan) focusing some of his energies on the European surrealists and translating from French. You asked about what Micrograms told us (and it told us plenty as both a book and as a translation project), but one of the more interesting things it told us concerns the different values that can be had by moving fluidly between macro and micro views of literature and culture. While doing this might neglect certain traditional responsibilities of literary criticism, it can allow the mind to better appreciate the complexity of the artist and artistic work, even, and maybe especially, in the case of work that presents so simply.

ECW I love the description of Micrograms’ project as “different values that can be had by moving fluidly between macro and micro views of literature and culture.” I’d love to know more about the micro level of translating this work. For example, in “Kernel of Corn” (“Every morning/ in the rooster’s beak/ each kernel becomes/ a cob of song.”) the alliteration is so integral to the way the poem functions. Was this a happy accident or something difficult to achieve? Were there specific challenges to the microgram form in the act of translation, say in comparison to 5 Meters of Poems?

ADA & JB One of the things we attempted as translators was to put ourselves in the best position for these “happy accidents.” It often means, in particular with the shorter poems, doing something drastic to the translation. Trying it many times. Allowing ourselves to be loose first, because with such short poems, in the end it is necessary to tighten them so finely, and if one begins that way there can be very little room for actually hearing the poem. We listen to the actions of the poem and the environment of the poem and then concentrate more closely on the language. This might be our way of “achieving the happy accident.” In 5 Metersit was very different. The visual, the sound, the ecstatic connections of things dominates, and the language and voice present themselves before images and actions can be focused on. With many short forms, and with micrograms and haiku in particular, it is the opposite: the language seems to recede. Now, the prose for Micrograms had very different responsibilities. It demanded an open and more fluid style, taking on the combined tones of manifesto and literary history, while juggling all the different ideas and examples. This was particularly challenging because the examples were often being re-imagined and re-historicized. It was necessary to understand, in a really nuanced way, the original contexts and histories of a great variety of authors and styles just to get the right sense of tone throughout the essay. While our process of working together remained pretty much the same, the challenges of the two works couldn’t have been more different.

ECW Andrade sees possibilities in the short form that I would suspect the majority of contemporary American poets do not. Outside of the context of Micrograms as a project with its special kind of attention and thought, how do the two of you as poets relate to the short poem? And has translating these poems, both Andrade’s and the other poets, pushed you towards or away from short forms in your own work?

ADA & JB Our experiences over the years of working on this book are so varied it is probably best to answer by keeping one foot in the context of Micrograms. In the essay, Andrade combines an uncontroversial point (that short forms have been minor in Spanish literature, and by extension in all traditions of Western poetry) with a highly exotic gesture: the location of the short form as a hidden aspect of long forms (witness how he plucks his first microgram out of a poem by Quevedo, one quatrain out of twenty-four!). This gives us a guiding hint: we may not know what the short form is, how poems assume it or silently rely on it, and consequently we might want to think differently about where and when to look for it. In this sense the push might be both towards and away from short forms.

ECW What are the two of you working on right now? Do you plan to do another translation project like this again in the near future?

ADA & JB I (Alejandro) am working on, among other things, a translation and research project on Francis Ponge, centered on his book Pour un Malherbe, and a booklet of baroque sentences contrasted with various citations from preferred authors, given in Spanish and French and rendered into English. There are at least two authors Joshua and I have been thinking of working on, but it would be unwise to reveal their names just now. And I (Joshua) am writing poems, reading poems, editing poems, and happily receiving mail from Alejandro with translations of Francis Ponge and various other mysterious characters.

Elizabeth Clark Wessel’s poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in DIAGRAMA Public SpaceFairy Tale ReviewNo, DearSixth FinchAsymptoteLana Turner Journal, and Fawlt Magazine, among others. She lives in Brooklyn and is an editor at Argos Books.