Amy Wright is a poet, author, and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Austin Peay State University. Amy is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press and Zone 3 Journal and the author of four poetry chapbooks: There Are No New Ways to Kill a Man (Apostrophe Books), Farm (Finishing Line Press), The Garden Will Give You A Fat Lip, won the 2012 Pavement Saw Chapbook Contest. Dancing Girl Press published her fourth chapbook, Rhinestones in the Bed, or Cracker Crumbs, in 2014. Her newest collection of nonfiction essays Wherever the Land Is (miel, 2016) was published earlier this year. Amy’s writing appears in a number of journals including Kenyon Review, Southern Poetry Anthology (Volumes III and VI) and Tupelo Quarterly. She was awarded a Peter Taylor Fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, an Individual Artist’s Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission, and a fellowship to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA).
Sarah Escue: One of the many intriguing aspects about Wherever the Land Is are your translations of Sappho and Emily Dickinson. Why did you choose to translate these particular authors and bodies of work?
Amy Wright: Emily Dickinson is the first poet whose poems I loved and memorized, yet even after years of reading her poems as a girl then as an undergraduate and graduate student, they were still wild with mystery. I knew from translating for my Master’s thesis the poetry of Peruvian poet César Vallejo that translation lends incredible intimacy to another’s work, so I used it to gain additional access to her poems. It was a way of adopting her as a mentor and trying to determine what characterizes feminine authority.
Sappho I undertook later with an additional objective. So much of the lyric’s origins have been reduced to mere slivers that I wanted to give the remaining fragments the attention they warrant. Translation helped me step through the doors that Anne Carson’s bracketed translations left open.
SE: How would you describe the movement of translation, adaption, and reclamation throughout this book?
AW: I think of this particular form of what I call poetry-to-prose translations as another medium. Language-to-language translations have a different relationship and responsibility to their originals. We already have Sappho and Dickinson’s poems in English, so I couldn’t contribute on that level, but I could offer my side of the conversation they initiated with one 21st century Appalachian-American reader. I could infuse my response to the call I hear within her work with the reasons I celebrate and honor it. And in carrying her lines into readings, which are themselves lyric, I could strum them against the shifting context through which they continue to live.
SE: Was there a specific text or author that first attracted you to translation? How do you enter a translation without changing the original text’s context?
AW: Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies first showed me the power of great translation. Rather than disguising his relationship to Rilke’s work—and Lao Tzu’s and Homer’s, and Job’s and the many other writers he’s translated—he integrates the context in which the work is being read with the one in which it was written. A change in context is inevitable. That these works remain in circulation and in various translations is a testament not to their lack of change but to their responsiveness to change. Embracing how these works currently resonate with him helps bridge their preserved wisdom and contemporary understanding, but that is because he is an exceptionally perceptive reader. The best translators are necessarily first great readers.
What I am working to create is not a facsimile but another work altogether—an apple in itself, if one that falls not far from the tree from which it sprung.
SE: Is translation a type of appropriation? Is translation a public or private act?
AW: For me, translation is both public and private in the way that grief is both. I use this unlikely comparison because one of the great gifts I noticed after my brother’s death was that the family members and friends would bring me the most precious thing imaginable at that time—more memories of him. Since my ability to make new ones with him was gone, I reveled in the ones they shared. Translation can be a similar means of preserving memories and relationships to work we love. Unless someone finds a long-lost Dickinson or Sappho poem, we only have what we can now offer in response—across language or media. It’s a public, or communal, offering that we receive in quite personal and internal ways.
SE: When does a translated text lose its original context? When this happens, is the work still considered a translation, or is it an adaptation or separate body of work altogether? Do you have any advice for individuals new to literary translation?
AW: Perhaps I should, but I don’t think of the context for a translation as a physical space akin to the setting for a play or a cathedral ceiling mural. I think of translation as a means of communicating across time or country or language or media potentially universal insights. Translators of poetry have additional responsibilities to retain the music and what Benjamin calls the “essence” of the original—but those original works do not seem to me separate from what has come before. Rather, they resound age-old notes newly combined. They evolve meaning in relation to changing conditions. They add to what is matter and not air, by building on centuries of human work and error.
I would advise language-to-language translators differently than poetry-to-prose or other kinds of experimental translators. Both need to first be exceptional readers whose readings complement, complicate, or otherwise augment the originals. But language-to-language translators also need to become like Coleman Barks, whose translations of Rumi evidence a profound depth of understanding while casting the light of himself onto the page only to illuminate the text. Poetry-to-prose or other translators have a different opportunity to celebrate the making new. Like the best song covers, they are original in themselves, so of course they don’t always work. I’ve tossed out a number of attempts myself, and there are more than enough bland Dylan covers that fail to bring voices as individual as his. But wouldn’t I tune in to Joanna Newsom’s version of “Tangled Up in Blue?” So, probably the best thing an experimental translator might do is to first train her own voice to carry as far as it can.
SE: Ownership and movement play prominent roles in Wherever the Land Is. Stolen or hidden paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Degas are reimagined, quite beautifully I might add. These paintings were stolen years ago and are in unknown locations where the public can’t view them. Can a person or culture truly own art? When art is stolen or hidden, is it still considered art? Can art become an artifact?
AW: Thanks for saying so. Your question reminds me of Dickinson’s poem 348 “I would not paint—a picture —” because the speaker prefers to be, rather than the painter, “the One / Its bright impossibility / To dwell — delicious — on—.” Contemplating a work of art, she makes apparent, is central to the work of art as such. Like a tree falling in a forest that no one hears, does it make a sound? If your definition of sound requires the meeting with a human eardrum, it does not, although the falling tree still emits sound waves. A work of art maintains its “bright impossibility” even when the channel between observer and work is broken, but I would say it animates through that exchange. A work of art, though, differs from a tree, which lives in its own right and as plant science has begun to reveal would sense the sonic vibration, if not with ears.
In the case of the works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardener Art Museum, it is possible that they were removed from the public eye for the sake of a select and smaller audience, which complicates how one thinks about that channel of animation. I hope it does remain open, even in a more limited form, as it means the works remain intact somewhere. It’s also possible that they were reclaimed as national treasures, which opens a broader question of ethics. I would not hazard a fixed answer about how to handle all art, but I would say a sign of respect for work that has long outlived its artist is to entrust it to the care of its ancestors. It’s an ethical debate I felt especial empathy toward after the loss of my only brother. Given enough time—as in the 20,000-year-old Paleolithic paintings in the Lascaux Caves—one can see art become artifact and conduit of multifarious human stories.
SE: Why is the relationship between text and image important? What’s your process for blending text and image? Do you experiment with other mediums, such as painting or sculpture? How does experimenting with various art forms inform your writing?
AW: I was making a lot of color pencil drawings when I drafted this essay—simplistic and minimalist due as much to my drawing skills as to my aesthetic. Right now I am folding origami animals, which I send through the post to friends. Working with my hands helps me quiet thought and free my mind to listen to the rhythms that arise. Images fire in another region of the brain and light new paths toward understanding. I’m just grateful that new media helps me build on that potential.
SE: Exploring the restorative power of the creative process is a large part of this book. How has writing and the creative process helped you overcome hardships and heartbreak over the years? What was it like writing about your brother several years after his passing? How can the arts unite and heal a community?
AW: There is a beautiful line in Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk in which she is tracing a key her now-deceased father had taped on a card for her. In doing so she recognizes the shape of her love for him, and the way her grief has opened into something else. The absence of a lost person will always be with us, if at varying times harder to bear. What writing or drawing can do is similar to those new memories I said loved ones brought me after Jeremy’s funeral: they can add to the story that ended too soon. They can empower me not to change it but to create a protected space to mourn. Grieving is healthy and should be well honored, as it teaches us the depth and breadth and height and width of our love for another person. I had no idea my capacity was so vast until I felt the infinite space his loss opened up. Art can help us trust ourselves enough to risk that.
Sarah Escue is earning her MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.