NA: I first heard of Zephyr Press when I picked up The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova years ago. I read on your website that that collection set Zephyr Press on the path to becoming a publisher of translations. Could you talk about that transition?
JK: The Akhmatova came to Zephyr through one of its early editors, Susan Gubernat, who was a friend and colleague of the translator, Judith Hemschemeyer. But it was the founder of Zephyr, Ed Hogan, who turned it into the monumental, bilingual authoritative two-volume edition it became, with the help of Roberta Reeder — at the time, the only complete edition of Akhmatova’s poetry in Russian or English. And it sparked an interest in Ed in going further and deeper into Russian literature. He commissioned a bilingual anthology of contemporary Russian poetry, but died before that book, In the Grip of Strange Thoughts, was published. The anthology spawned a series of spin-off books, and a shift in balance for the press to translation.
NA: You translate poetry from around the world including a Chinese, Russian, and Polish series. How do you pick your nationality?
JK: Again, one thing led to another. One of the editors working on an anthology of Polish poetry came to me for advice, based on my experience with the Russian. She thought she had a publisher already for her book; but, when that opportunity fell through, Zephyr picked up the book, Carnivorous Boy Carnivorous Bird, which in turn led to a spin-off of Polish poetry books initially based on the anthology.
Meanwhile, our new managing editor, Cris Mattison, brought with him to Zephyr a knowledge of both Russian and Chinese. His acquaintance with the Chinese poet Bei Dao led us to issue first Fissures, an anthology of contributions to the Chinese journal Jintian; and then a collection of Bei Dao’s essays, Blue House. More Chinese books followed; and, for the past couple of years, Cris has been living in Hong Kong, working with the Jintian Foundation, and finding more Chinese poets for us.
NA: How do you find your poets? Your translators? How do you know that you are working with good translators?
JK: We have sought out some poets and translators, others have come to us on their own. In one case, I was on a panel at a conference with Lisa Katz, a translator who mentioned she couldn’t find a publisher for a poet she was working with. I asked her to send us a proposal, and that became our first Israeli book, Approaching you in English, by Admiel Kosman. My editorial co-director on Zephyr, Leora Zeitlin, who was with Ed from the beginning of the press, is fluent in Hebrew. We trust Cris and his contacts for the Chinese. For the languages we don’t have in-house, we have good connections. Our translator of the Romanian poet Liliana Ursu, Sean Cotter, has won several translation awards; as have two of our Polish translators, Bill Johnston and Antonia Lloyd-Jones. In fact, Antonia has just won recognition from the Polish Cultural Foundation for a whole body of her work. Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright, who translated the German poet Zafer Şenocak, I met when she won a fellowship from the American Literary Translators Association. As she worked on her manuscript of Door Languages, she was part of a smaller group of us in the Boston area; so, she kind of grew into Zephyr naturally.
NA: How did you become involved with the press?
JK: Ed Hogan and I were friends in the small-press community of New England during the 1970s and into the 1980s. We gradually became closer and closer friends. He liked to come to my house in New Hampshire for work and a retreat, and we would read manuscripts together. Our interests in Russian, however, were separate but parallel, and drew us even closer together. I got him invited to Russia to speak with publishers in Moscow and St. Petersburg during perestroika, and I went with him on that trip; and he trusted me to put together the anthology of contemporary Russian poets. But I had no formal relationship with Zephyr until he asked me to serve on its non-profit board of directors. When he died in a canoeing accident in 1997, Leora and I, as board members, took over the press.
NA: Do you do any translating yourself?
JK: I translate mostly from Russian and French, and mostly contemporary poetry. I also collaborate with an old friend translating Latin American Jewish poetry — we have produced several books and an online anthology — a collaboration that has very much enriched my acquaintance with world culture.
NA: Latin American Jewish poetry? An online anthology?
JK: A Voice Among the Multitudes isn’t a Zephyr publication, so it’s outside this conversation, I guess. When we were still trying to make a name for ourselves with contemporary Russian poetry, Zephyr used a couple of my own translations to help fill out our list, but we decided early on that enough was enough, and it was helpful neither for my reputation nor Zephyr’s to publish too much of my own work. Consequently, I have several strong manuscripts that are going begging, because nobody else is interested, but we make more room for others’ good translations.
NA: I am a huge fan of translations, of reading poetry from around the world. I think it makes one a stronger poet. But I have heard that poetry translations don’t sell well in the U.S. Is that true?
JK: It is true that selling translations is difficult in the United States, because the market for literature is driven heavily now by personal appearances, and translated works can’t usually produce the writers on stage — and when we do, the foreigners don’t always speak English themselves — and few people are interested in the translators without the original writers.
But it’s not true, once we get the books in front of people’s eyes, that the books don’t sell. American readers are actually very hungry for literature from around the world. At those book fairs and conference displays where small presses line up at table after table, we regularly outsell, sometimes by spectacular percentages, those presses that are showing only American writers.
NA: Do you have a favorite book of translations? A favorite unknown poet? By unknown, I mean unknown in this country.
JK: Are you asking me personally, or as the publisher of Zephyr? As publisher, I refuse to choose among my children. I love them all.
And personally, as with all reading, my preferences veer by mood and whim, as much as by any value judgment more substantial. Right now, for instance, you catch me re-reading Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir, Hope Against Hope. The first time I read it, I knew little Russian, and took Max Hayward’s translation on faith, finding the book magnificently written. Now I’m going through it with the original Russian at hand, and my appreciation for both Mandelstam and Hayward has only skyrocketed. It’s brilliantly done.
But I guess you meant poetry?
NA: No, that sounds really interesting. His life was quite a story. Could you offer a little snippet or an insight into Mandelstam?
JK: I think others — including or especially his widow — can speak and have written far more knowledgeably and eloquently than I can about Osip Mandelstam! I just read with appreciation.
NA: Zephyr Press also publishes some books by American poets?
JK: Yes. Zephyr’s origins are in the little magazine Aspect, part of the incredibly innovative and productive poetry community of Boston in the 1970s. Cris Mattison helped us revive that for a while with a collaboration with the Adventures in Poetry program out of New York for a few years, but that’s pretty much faded away. The urgency of poetry from other literatures does seem to be our calling. But, right now we’re preparing a book in the earliest spirit of Aspect/Zephyr — a Boston-based book of light verse by a sports commentator. That will come out in fall 2014.
NA: What is the title of the book? Could we have a poem from it?
JK: Not yet. Too soon. The final manuscript hasn’t even been edited, and that takes time. Zephyr prides itself on the care we put into editing — something that’s more and more lacking from contemporary publishing.
NA: What are some of the happiest or proudest moments for the press? Feel free to provide links to reviews, events, readings, etc.
JK: I think the proudest day for Zephyr — so far — was when Ed Hogan buttonholed me in Harvard Square to tell me that he had just learned that The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova had been named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review. It was a wonderful moment for all of small-press publishing, breaking into that bastion of the Establishment. But, of course, that was well before my time at Zephyr.
NA: Is there anything else you would like to say about Zephyr Press?
JK: I could go on for a very long time. But if I have a pitch to make, it’s threefold: Support independent presses — that is, buy our books; seek out literature from abroad (even, or especially, if you have to work at it) and buy books through independent booksellers whenever possible. Mail-order when necessary, but from real people by choice.
NA: Maybe you could give us a link here to make it very, very easy to order a Zephyr title?
JK: www.zephyrpress.org. A reminder, too, that, as a 501(c ) (3) nonprofit, we’re dependent on public grants and private donations to keep us going. Literary presses in general sure as hell don’t survive on sales alone. Nevertheless, what we’d like best is that people order our books through their local bookstores — that encourages bookstores to stock our titles, and it supports the store as well as the press.
NA: I would like to end with a poem of your choice from one of your collections of poetry.
JK: Since one of our commitments is to publishing women from cultures that all too often, even now, back-bench their female poets, let’s just choose one poem by the Polish poet, Marzanna Kielar, translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese in Salt Monody:
A RENTED ROOM
bit of a roof with a crooked aerial, and a wall
with a door
slightly opened onto the empty balcony —
we are like this reflection carried into the room
on the wing of the window, opening.
Light in the corridor lures moths, the glass image darkens and love
speaks a language of scattered syntax;
memory, like a prism, refracts the past — we are pulled
by its returning whirls, and the hum of the railway station.
We barely perceive that, apart from pain,
there’ll be nothing dear. Apart from the hand which will turn
the brass handle on the window frame
J. Kates is a poet, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia. He received a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry in 1984 and a Translation Project Fellowship in 2006, as well as an Individual Artist Fellowship from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts in 1995. He has published three chapbooks of his own poems: Mappemonde (Oyster River Press) Metes and Bounds (Accents Publishing) and The Old Testament (Cold Hub Press) and a full book, The Briar Patch. (Hobblebush Books). He is the translator of The Score of the Game and An Offshoot of Sense by Tatiana Shcherbina; Say Thank You and Level with Us by Mikhail Aizenberg; When a Poet Sees a Chestnut Tree and Secret Wars by Jean-Pierre Rosnay; Corinthian Copper by Regina Derieva; Live by Fire by Aleksey Porvin; and Genrikh Sapgir’s Psalms. He is the translation editor of Contemporary Russian Poetry, and the editor of In the Grip of Strange Thoughts: Russian Poetry in a New Era. A former president of the American Literary Translators Association, he is also the co-translator of four books of Latin American poetry.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books including The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum. She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort was published by CavanKerry Press in 2010. Follow Nin's blog here. Follow Nin on Twitter here.