Justin Bigos: The poems in your new collection, The Real Cause for Your Absence(C&R Press, 2013), create forms for suspense, suddenness, danger. The poems often give the immediate sense (to paraphrase Frost) that something is not exactly right—and now the speaker must open his eyes fully, and respond. I wonder if we can begin by discussing this delicious disorientation you create: in each poem the sense that “[y]ou are suddenly in a life.”
Curtis Bauer: I’m glad that you find it delicious. I am in a state of disorientation often, so it’s a bit like the daily bread . . . I wouldn’t call it delicious, but part of life, that sustenance you need to survive but don’t really think about. I find that I’m often surprised by what is going on around me, or to be more precise . . . what I think is going on or being said. I’ve always been that way, understanding things that people aren’t saying, or seeing something odd in how someone is dressed, but it’s just how the light is falling on them. Even when I was a kid growing up on a farm in Iowa–I asked a lot of questions because I didn’t want to get in trouble, but I seemed to get in trouble anyway–and now as I maneuver between two languages and different cultures, I think I’m even more disoriented. I suppose it’s some kind of dyslexia . . . But to respond to your question more directly, that sudden shifting to which you refer comes out of seeing the literal and figurative in the world. We make associations all the time, and from each association we have others, and on and on. I think many of my poems are preoccupied with that kind of association, and the coming back to the literal, although the literal isn’t always the most interesting.
JB: I do see that associative quality very much in your work, and I’m interested in this idea of “coming back to the literal.” Gerald Stern has called you “a sane realist with a vivid imagination.” I love how he captures the tension you’ve described–between the literal and the figurative–but I suppose I wonder if in some way you privilege or feel a kind of loyalty to the “real” world. And I wonder if perhaps the answer has something to do with the darker, more political notes that emerge later in The Real Cause for Your Absence. Huge question, I know.
CB: This idea of the “real” world is a bit foggy. I won’t get into a discussion of what is real or not, but that questions is something that concerns me. I think I take my understanding of “real” from my father, who is a painter. Some call him a realist, but he prefers the term “representational,” which I think is a more precise illustration of what we do as writers, what I attempt to do as a poet: represent the world I see and understand. The title of the book, for example, demonstrates for me the difficulty of identifying or pinning down one thing, but it represents questions and concerns that surround a relationship, both internal and external. Regarding my preoccupation with some of those darker social and political ideas you mention… we have to start somewhere that is familiar with all of us, or that can be. And that’s what the “real” or “literal” is, a kind of common ground that allows us to start a conversation. The joy for me, and one of the things that interests me the most in poetry, is how that conversation can lead to other conversations that I couldn’t have imagined when I started.
JB: You mention painting and representation. I wonder if we can talk a bit about whatSebastian Matthews, in regards to his own work, has called “the ekphrastic impulse.” You have more than a few poems titled “drawings,” “still lives,” “sketches,” etc., and also a poem titled, “While Reading I Think About Drawing.” I sense almost a competition between the literary and the visual arts in your poems. One thing the ekphrastic poem allows you to do is signal a purely visual space, while immediately disrupting it byanimating the poem. For example, the poem “To a Woman Standing in a Doorway” creates a purposefully static image in its title, and then the poem begins, “Rush out with me to where the lawns are wide,” which moves the poem into the urgent, the happening-right-now, whose frame–at least in the imagination–is widened well beyond a doorway.
CB: I like the idea of animating a poem. I hadn’t really thought about it that way. I am a visual thinker; I see objects, movement, even words on a page sometimes, so for me to include “sketch,” “drawing,” or “still lives” in a poem seems like a natural thing to do, and perhaps it is less meaningful than it appears. At the same time, however, “sketch” and “drawing” have for me the connotation of something quick, something one can do without thinking much, as a kind of exercise that helps you understand a subject or process. I don’t mean to say that I wrote those poems quickly, but there is a certain approach to composition I’m trying to achieve. I spend a lot of time looking at drawings and paintings of artists like Alberto Giacometti, Eduardo Chillida, and Giorgio Morandi, to name only a few; I’m always surprised by how easy they make the process look, how unimportant drawing seems to be for the artist . . . they’ve got sketchbook after sketchbook filled with them . . . in fact I have a Giacometti book that reproduces drawings on napkins, theater programs, and newspapers he did while waiting in coffee shops and bars. Behind that act is something extraordinarily important–why else would they spend so much time doing it?–and I think it has to do with practice: the practice of looking at something and attempting to represent its essence; the practice of craft. So really, there’s no competition between the literary and visual, but a fusion of the two . . . or a walking hand in hand with one and the other.
You mention the poem, “To A Woman Standing in a Doorway,” and I think that’s a fine example of how a still life can lead to other ideas and images. This poem and many of the others are really about how I look, about how I learn to see beyond the literal and consider textures and tones, light and shadows, which is very much the way a painter or visual artist looks, I guess. At the same time, I’m giving myself an opening to experiment, to see where the piece goes without the self-imposed restrictions of say, “this is going to be a poem; I’m going to publish this eventually.” I guess what I’m getting at is that I feel a certain sense of relief and informality with the word “sketch” and that allows me to explore ideas I might not have explored to begin with. I can follow a line I put down and continue to make the sketch bigger, as if expanding the frame of the picture.
JB: There is definitely a really refreshing informality in your work, even at the level of the line—but of course this informality is a kind of form. In your recent interview with 32 Poems, Emilia Phillips gave a wonderful close-reading of your use of line, especially enjambment, in “Looking at 12 White Things,” showing how each line enacted what she called a “dynamism of emotion, space, and experience.” I also notice this dynamism in your length of line and stanza. For example, in your poem “Colony Collapse Disorder,” these lines:
Like a horse
ridden so hard for home it gets you there but its wind is broken, which means
its breath can’t fill its lungs, even walking to the water tank exhausts it;
but there is no beauty there
but the beauty of the dying.
The poem alternates between the monostich, couplet, and tercet, and it is the monostiches that are the very short lines in the poem. If you compose poems according to a sonic kind of “sketching,” what it is that drives a very short, self-contained monostich versus, say, a long-lined, enjambed couplet or tercet? And how many drafts does it typically take you to find out?
CB: Let me start with the number of drafts. I wonder if there is a poet who knows how many drafts it takes to discover the form of a poem. I suppose there are many, but it makes me think of that lollipop commercial with the owl . . . “how many licks does it take . . ? One, two, three, crunch!”
It’s hard for me to know, to be honest. I suppose it depends on the poem, what I understand it to be about. Sometimes I think I know and then I realize I was mistaken and the poem turns in a different direction. In one of the poems in The Real Cause For Your Absence, I discovered the blank verse lines when I was revising it for the final manuscript submission.
“Colony Collapse Disorder” came about fairly quickly, in maybe ten drafts. And what you call the “sonic sketching”—I love this idea and I will steal it from you—is a consequence of the quickly turned ideas. This poem fixes its attention on at least three different subjects—bees, the neighbors, the speaker’s father—and it is a result of my preoccupation with the interconnectedness of things, which means another subject in the poem is relationships: our relationship with nature, with the people in our community, with our loved ones, even though they might be far away. This poem fuses these subjects together; the collage of these different subjects into lines of diverse lengths causes both a physical and intellectual response for me . . . and I hope for the reader. I want the varying line and stanza lengths to demonstrate how quickly our minds can move from one idea to another; how I look for links or threads that are common between seemingly uncommon subjects. It’s jarring and surprising, but greatly rewarding.
I don’t necessarily compose a poem outright thinking of sounds; as I said before, I am attracted to images . . . but the sonic quality grows out of the refinement of the line as I discover where the poem is going. That sonic sketching helps give me a clearer, fuller representation of what the poem is about. How many drafts does it take? Four? Twelve? Thirty-five? Crunch!
JB: Let’s turn our discussion toward translation. You translate into English from the Spanish, including the poetry of José de María Romero Barea, Juan Antonio González Iglesias, and Luis Muñoz. On the flip side, you have had your own poems translated into Spanish, by Romero Barea and Diãna Vigule, in the volume Spanish Sketchbook(Ediciones en Huida, 2012). Please forgive my semi-literacy in Spanish, but I find some interesting translations in Spanish Sketchbook. Here is an example, the final lines from the opening poem, “Three Spain Sketches”:
or the people on the platform
have said goodbye and started to walk away.
is translated into . . .
o es la multitud
que ha dicho adios y vuelve a casa.
I’m struck by the difference between “people” and a multitude, a crowd; and also by the difference between walking away and returning home. These seem like huge differences! So, I have a few questions here. Can you talk about the experience of seeing your words translated so creatively into another language? Were you involved collaboratively? And on the other side of it: how do you balance—or do you?—the obligation to remain loyal to words (and syntax and lines and music) in another language, with the desire to create something your own, in your native tongue? (The conflict just reared its head when, above, I wasn’t sure whether to type “translated as,” or “translated into” . . .)
CB: It’s a real honor to have my poems translated into another language; it means that someone appreciates the work enough that he wants to dedicate hours and hours to the hard work of making your poems into poems in another language. My poems have been translated into French and Portuguese as well, and another Spanish poet is working on translating my first book into Spanish. I feel extremely lucky. That said, I have a feeling I must be a difficult poet to translate since I understand Spanish fairly well, and I know what my poems sound like in English, and what their sonic approximation would be in Spanish. I ask a lot of questions and make comments, and I worry that my translators might get annoyed, so I try to pull back and let them do their work, their way.
There are several poems in Spanish Sketchbook I would have translated differently, but I also think it’s important for the translator to convey her own interpretation of the poem. However, I also think it’s important to maintain a musicality that parallels the original. I think José de María and Diàna did a good job with the book. José would send me drafts he had already vetted with Diàna, and I’d tell him what I thought; initially, he took many more liberties than he did later on. We discussed this, mainly because I thought he was making the poems into something that I hadn’t written, more of a kind of summary than an actual poem. In the end, even with the little departures you identified, this book allowed me to reach readers I wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to speak to. Maybe the translations aren’t perfect, but I’m not sure any translation ever is. I’m grateful to José and Diàna, as well as to the editors at Ediciones en Huida, for their kindness and attention.
The second part of your question is one I think about all the time, especially when I’m translating more than one author at a time. I’m always worried about my translations of different poets sounding the same in English, perhaps sounding too much like Curtis Bauer, or too much like poems that are translated literally, just words carried across that chasm between languages. At the same time, this is something writers think about often, right? We worry about doing the same thing over and over, being repetitive. Okay, I won’t speak for everyone. I worry about sounding too much like myself all the time. I want to be challenged by the complexity of language, as well as challenge it. When I translate poetry I find an extra challenge that opens my ears and vision more than if I were only thinking in English. But back to your question: I think about meaning, of course, and I’d say I’m loyal to the meaning of the poem, but meaning is murky in poetry. I can identify a literal meaning for the words, but there is metaphoric and sonic meaning as well. English and Spanish syntax is different, so there are times when I bend typical Spanish syntax into typical English syntax; when a poem uses uncommon syntax, however, I make sure that I also carry that across. There is a risk of the poem sounding unnatural in English, but if the poet wrote the poem a particular way in Spanish, I have to make sure that decision is evident in my English version.
My approach to translation? I read the poem as I would a poem in English. Then I read it again, and then again, thinking about what is happening in the poem, which means identifying its complexities, and then I read it again and consider the best way to transfer those nuances into English. Most often, it’s not the literal poem that comes across, but a combination of sound, music, and sense. I don’t feel like I’m making my own poem, because I have material to work with. But, the translation is my understanding of the most significant elements in the poem, which I guess makes it my own poem in a way. Am I contradicting myself? I suppose so. Every translator will approach the same poem differently . . . because of our different tastes, how we hear words and rhythms, how we understand metaphors, and how we balance all of that with our own language use.
JB: I love the moments in your poems in which we can see issues of language and translation embodied, animated—often with an erotic, even violent, charge. For example, your poem, “Still Life with a Bed in the Middle,” begins, “While I sleep my wife writes on my back.” In the poem, “Recital,” the speaker is seduced by the voice of a Polish poet reading her work, a voice that “undresses” the speaker. In the opening poem of The Real Cause for Your Absence (and, interestingly, the closing poem of Spanish Sketchbook), “If This is What It Takes,” the speaker says, “A blade, I understand its language.” In each case, you have somehow mingled the pleasures of the flesh with the pleasures of language—especially language at a remove, the seductive foreign tongue. Have you thought about this erotic/linguistic tension in your work? What do you make of it?
CB: I have thought a lot about this tension, as well as about the erotics of language. We often think of the erotic as related to something we see or feel, but I think speaking another language, or even speaking our first languages well, can be extremely pleasurable. At the same time we have to remember that all objects communicate something, and we need to be more astute linguists, perhaps, in order to understand and be able to translate what a knife, for example, has to say to the hand, or what the leaf says to the shoulder it falls upon. Maybe these aren’t the most interesting conversations, but I think there are times when objects have more to say than we realize. And to be able to read someone’s touch on your skin . . . that just feels good, plain and simple.
To return to the core of your question, I do see a relationship between the linguistic and the physical. Part of what I think you’re identifying in my work comes from my constant engagement with two different languages. I’m blessed (and cursed, I suppose) to have acquired easy access to both English and Spanish, and I move from one to another without thinking too much about it. Although I may not confuse words too often, there are times when I do use Spanish syntactical structures when I’m speaking in English, and I think that mistake, and the awareness of its consequences, makes my writing in English more complex. I don’t mean to say that I think I’m a difficult writer, but I think my phrases contain fairly complex structures and odd juxtapositions of nouns and adjectives, and this can result in something surprising and pleasurable.
One more thing I want to add, which is extremely important for me, and this comes from my graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College, studying under Thomas Lux among many other amazing poets, and with poets like Ross Gay and Patrick Rosal to name only a few . . . and that is the spoken word. There I learned how to read poetry out loud and to think about how the utterance, the spoken word, requires that breath moves within us, creating an energy that is unmatched. When words fill your mouth, you have a physical reaction you don’t have if you’re only listening to that voice in your head. When you add to this experience words and/or structures that are uncommon or foreign I think there’s something even more striking about how our bodies and intellect interpret this, something I’d like to think makes the poem, in my case, more memorable.
JB: That’s an interesting point you make about bilingual syntax. I remember when Aleksandar Hemon published his first books critics marveled at his prose style, in particular the strange syntax and diction of it. Hemon was writing in a new language to him, English, and the challenge produced some dazzling writing. You talk about breath, and about listening. Another kind of poem you write is the persona poem–for example, your poem “Aviary.” And I love that I don’t realize it’s a persona poem until the speaker’s “brothers,” toward the end of this short lyric, “fly, digesting over acres.” Is there also a kind of listening required to write persona poems? And is there any difference between this kind of listening and the listening required of poems in a human voice?
CB: I don’t know if it is another kind, or a more precise listening, one that captures the different modes of communication of the non-human. Rocks, for example, must speak a language—you can hear them shouting as you walk over them, or as they plunge into a river. Or is that the water speaking? Or the conversation between the two? I suppose you could say I am imposing the human voice upon the non-human, or the other, but one of my preoccupations in life—and this is probably a shortcoming of mine—is that I’m thinking about and trying to inhabit the other, sometimes more than I think about myself, what I’m actually doing. I wonder if this comes from my early wish of wanting to be someone else, or that interest in the foreign cousin speaking another language who had come to visit, and then trying to mimic the sounds of his German or Welsh or whatever when I was alone. In linguistics they talk about playing with language, how we are good at that when we are kids, but then we tend to stop playing and mimicking as we grow older. I guess I didn’t know that I was supposed to stop that mimicking. Maybe that’s how I learned to speak Spanish with a lesser accent than most American speakers—I didn’t mind losing myself. And I think that’s what it takes to write a good poem: less self and more other. That’s what I aspire to, anyway.
JB: Earlier you mentioned how objects have a life, how they speak to us. This sounds wonderfully Swedenborgian to me! One of my favorite poems in The Real Cause for Your Absence is “Jacaranda Love Song.” I would like you to talk about how this poem transforms from a sad poem centering on a lyric “I” who sings the synesthesia of “lungs hungry for a different color,” to a poem focused on the wood of the jacaranda as it is cut into a flamenco guitar and “knows it can no longer push out flowers/ and perfume,” and finally to a poem focused on the guitarist who picks up his instrument and takes agency over the poem. I’m particularly struck by the seeming disappearance of the speaker of the poem’s beginning.
CB: Thanks for your generous reading of this poem. Maybe this is what I’m getting at when I say I’m willing to give up my self, remove myself from the poem. In the end, the “I,” the tree, and the music are all connected. It’s important for the speaker in this poem to identify a need, recognize it, and then listen to what the landscape has to say in response. There are answers to our queries in the world surrounding us, don’t you think? The answers in this poem build upon each other, are connected to one another. You note the lyric “I” moving to the wood, but between those two there’s a slightly smaller transformation, movement from the individual to the communal: “my lungs are hungry . . .” to “our breath/ is heavy, green, and the jacaranda is the tree/ these people peel . . .” The “I” comes back to praise the passive voice, and it is here that the poem departs from the individual and dwells in the “other,” just as the passive voice allows for the individual to be removed from the action. Our actions and observations are inside the actions, of course, just as the figure is inside the piece of marble the sculptor takes from the quarry, just as the music is inside the tree that becomes the guitar. As I work toward this uncovering, perhaps revealing is a better word for it; I better understand how closely connected the things of this world are.
JB: Let’s end our discussion with birds. There are a lot of birds in your poems, and one poem I particularly admire is “Rant.” It’s a poem that celebrates the grackle, which is a bird that does not seem to be appreciated much—at least by Texans—perhaps because there are so many of them. Is it weird to think something less beautiful because there is so much of it? A less ponderous question: why so many birds in your poems?
CB: Ha! I think a lot of wine and a lot of books are really beautiful things, as well as a lot of birds, whether they are grackles, crows, sparrows, or hummingbirds. I like the grackle because it’s the closest bird to the crow in the part of Texas where I live. Believe it or not, there are no crows there, and the crow is one of my favorite birds: they’re so smart, so observant I feel like an ignorant child when I’m around them. I’ve learned a lot from watching them over the years, and now from grackles; both seem to know how stupid we are, even laughing at our odd habits of watering lawns so we can then mow them, stretching on ladders to paint some invisible corner soffit piece or clear a gutter.
Why so many birds? The short answer: they can fly and I can’t. That’s amazing. I can’t help but see the bird as a metaphor most of the time. I know it’s real and literal, but when I watch swallows flit around at dusk, for example, they remind me of thoughts, ideas that circle around some central conversation in search of some kind of logic—most likely that’s because my thoughts are usually scattered. Other times I see them as punctuation marks on the page the sky is. I hope not to sound too corny, but I really wish I could have been a bird. Writing some of these poems helps me understand what I think it must be like to be one.