This is the fourth in a series of blog posts I am doing this week to honor those who help make others’ literary lives possible, and sometimes even wonderful. Yesterday I talked about Danny Lawless, the editor of Plume.
Danny Lawless’s partner in crime, co-editor, Marc Vincenz, is nothing short of a literary phenomenon. Born in Hong Kong to British-Swiss parents, he has lived in so many countries and languages, I wonder what language he dreams in. And which poets from around the world have been his primary influences. What language holds his music?
A translator of many German-language poets, his translation of Klaus Merz's collection, Unexpected Development, was a finalist for the 2015 Cliff Becker Book Translation Prize and is forthcoming from White Pine Press next year.
As a poet, not surprisingly, he is a man of many voices. His poems have a mythic and otherworldly quality, and seem to travel to other realms, far beyond expected and easily inhabited definitions. One senses mystical influences, as if he is seeking nothing less than to capture “the song of the world” or “the rapture of being alive,” in spite of inherent dualities. Yet, there is something both spellbinding and intimate in his work. He is also a deeply relevant and committed poet, with poems addressing the environmental demise of our planet. Whether ecstatic or despairing, witty or wild, his poems have a unique lyricism and vision.
His poem, “Damaged Music,” for example, addresses both his environmental concerns and his spiritual longing.
Ache in the old wisdom tooth,
an experience of self-fulfilling
prophecy, a damaged music
and acres of elephant bones.
Here we go: Another evening
of cold fiction, the starved
ghosts of ancient citadels.
I wish I might breathe sparrows
into the sky or wind-weather
the wild grass. I yearn
for the smell of day
in spring, for a language
without words. May I
one day climb out
of that honeycomb of life
and enter another world
where there are no numbers
to contain all of this, and
the smooth, bloody
thickness of oil flows
into the smut
of an ever-endless sky.
One of my favorite Marc Vincenz poems is this beautiful poem, “Cassandra Knows How to Die of Beauty” in which he echoes Emily Dickinson:
Cassandra Knows How to Die of Beauty
what it’s like to be dead
when we incessantly chatter
The name, love,
is crossed out.
Oh to write
letter after letter
a fruitless cause.
A letter, of course,
seems like immortality.
So I thought I'd ask Marc a few questions.
- Marc, I wondered if you would answer some of my early questions, such as: what language do you dream in? What poets have influenced you?
The language of dreams. A good question, Nin. I’m not sure; do we dream in a specific language? Certainly I have had conversations in my dreams in several languages: English, German, Spanish, Chinese and a smattering of poor Icelandic, but whether the dream is “narrated” or “set” in any specific language, I don’t think I can really be sure. Every once in a while, a poem or the title of a poem emerges from a dream. For that reason I keep a notepad on my bedside table; I have been known to wake up with a jolt in the middle of a night and scribble down the residue of what still lingers. Recently this occurred with a poem about my father, “My Father’s Familiar.” It was probably three o’clock in the morning, and the entire poem poured onto the page as if it had been written somewhere else long ago. The poem materialized in English. My sense is that my dreams are multilingual, but that the root language is English—which is the language I speak with my mother and the language I mostly think in.
I am an avid reader of poetry. I probably spend over three hours every day reading poems. Normally, I have many books of poetry going at the same time. At this moment, I am reading Merwin’s translation of Dante’s Purgatorio; Terese Svoboda’s first book of poems, Laughing Africa; Campbell McGrath’s XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century; Hank Lazer’s recent book, Poems Hidden in Plain View; Hertha Kräftner’s Kühle Sterne (Chilling Stars); Kevin Prufer’s Churches; Richard Kenny’s The Invention of Zero (a hell of a wild ride); William Mathew’s Selected Poems; Women Poets of China, translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung; and I just got my copy of Bill Knott’s Selected Poems (edited by the late Tom Lux) … and that’s not to mention the whole slew of poems I read from submissions, manuscripts selected for publication, the translations I am working on, or new candidates I am seeking out. Right now I am translating Klaus Merz’s selected poems (1963–2016), An Audible Blue. I am awash in poetic voices. In some way, they all have influenced me.
Here are some I have soft spots for: Tomas Tranströmer, Anna Akhmatova, Emily Dickinson, D. H. Lawrence, Nellie Sachs, Eugenio Montale, Yves Bonnefoy, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Robinson Jeffers, Reginald Shepherd, James Wright, Zbignew Herbert, W. B. Yeats, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, Milosz, Novalis, Olav H. Hauge, Thoreau, Heraclitus and of course, Shakespeare and Goethe.
- How many languages were spoken in your childhood?
I was brought up in a household that spoke three main languages: English, German and Rhetoromanish. On top of that, since early childhood (having been born in Hong Kong), I had the sounds of Cantonese and Mandarin clanking in my head. As a small child in the 1960s and ’70s, I played and scrapped with the children of the market-stall owners of Hong Kong’s Stanley Market and spoke fluent Cantonese. But my father worked with people from all over the world, and thus I grew up in a home that never had less than five languages careering around at any one time.
- When did you decide to become a poet?
My first literary mentor as an undergrad at Duke University was Reynolds Price. He was constantly telling me that I might run aground on the same shores that William Blake was beached—with my mystical language and magical approach to verse. Reynolds preached complete clarity, and was mostly lauded for it (although he is predominately known for his fiction). And yet, Reynolds, aside from being a poet, fiction writer, essayist and novelist, was also a Milton scholar. Reynolds noted that T. S. Eliot himself famously criticized Milton’s syntax, saying it was “dictated by a demand for verbal music, instead of any demand of sense.” A little strange coming from the author of that oh-so-modernist The Waste Land. I am certain that Reynolds was delighted with this dichotomy. It may have been that fine line between syntax and sense that urged me to become a writer of poems. After I left Duke, I had made my decision. Of course, it took me many years and several incarnations before I began sending them out into the world, shepherding them between the covers of books.
- Tell me about the art of translations. I am certain you don’t translate as they say Bly did, with a bilingual dictionary. And what inspired you to become a translator?
Originally I was satisfied with simply working on my own poetry—and fiction (my first novella is coming out soon from Spuyten Duvil Press), yet from time to time, these periods of silence would arise, when somehow I had over-saturated myself in my own imagined worlds. These periods sometimes occur when I have labored over one book or set of poems for so long that I need a complete change of scenery. The craft of translating helps me achieve a semblance of perspective on my own work. Anyway, it was during one of these phases when I was standing in the German Literature section of the Reykjavik Library and stumbled upon the work of the Swiss poet Erika Burkart. I began translating her book, Geheimbrief into English (it was recently released by Cervena Barva Press as Secret Letter) almost immediately, and without any particular goal in mind. After some months, I realized I had translated the whole book. Since then—almost nine years ago now, literary translation has become a part of my daily routine.
When I translate poetry from the German, my initial approach is much as I would own work: a rough sketch, an impression, a sense of how that voice on the page quivers. I attempt to crystalize the tone, the cadence, the rhythm and then the intent in English. All this is done almost fleetingly, without (after the initial reading) specifically referring back to the original. I go through this process, editing and refining for several rounds. It is only much later, when I have a working draft in English in my hands that I begin to compare both texts side-by-side. Sometimes, I will have diverged significantly from the root text; yet, it is precisely in these moments of divergence that I might discover the unique vibrations of the original. Once again, as with writing my own work, I need to return again and again.
I have had the good fortune also of working with a number of the poets I translate, listening together to find that frequency that brings their German into English. Their ears and eyes have also helped me meet these obstacles, and to realize that it is often in the most “untranslatable” passages that the magic may be found.
- Could we have a poem from Unexpected Development? And could you say a few words about Klaus Merz?
With pleasure. Here’s “In the Course of Time”:
The dignity of travel
is seriously remiss,
establishes my companion:
We hurtle about in high-capacity boxcars
straight through time, ear-
marked, industrious, hunched over. And
behind the Potemkin
passengers, the world
Klaus’s work is exceedingly condensed and concise. Initially, it appears to be sparse and, perhaps a little simple, yet on second glance it hits you, somehow resonating outside the page. When it sinks it, and sometimes it takes a few moments, you never quite walk the same—at least that’s my experience of it. Klaus’s poems are sound bites, intimate moments, distilled flashes of insight, and, for the most part, no more than five lines; you get a whiff of Ancients having walked here. It’s almost as if his work comes directly out of the Japanese haiku tradition. I think it has something to do with the Zen majesty of the Swiss alpine landscapes.
Although surely first and foremost a poet, Klaus is also a prize-winning fiction writer. His novella, Jakob schläft (Jacob Asleep), is, as literary fiction goes, a German-language bestseller. It was very recently published in English as part of a collection of three novellas by Seagull Books, Stigmata of Bliss (beautifully translated by Tess Lewis). Unexpected Development is the second collection of Klaus’s I have translated. The first was Out of the Dust (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014), and right now, I am working on a third book of translations, Klaus’s selected poems (1963–2016), An Audible Blue.
- How does the poetry world in Germany compare to that of the U.S.?
Most of the German-language poets I have translated are Swiss. As Swiss poet and publisher Markus Bundi has told me, “You can count the readers of poetry in Switzerland in a book of matches.” In Switzerland there are virtually no literary journals—online or otherwise. Much of the promotion of the books and the literary events surrounding poetry is in the hands of the “literature houses”—and the likelihood that you will get invited to read or debate poetical works boils down to the cred and connections of your publisher.
The poets I know in Switzerland who get their poetry collections published by higher-profile literary presses do so because they also write fiction. Basically, it is understood that if you want to publish your poetry, you had better deliver the occasional novel to make it worthwhile for the publisher. Today, in the German-language literary world, you find almost no poetry-only authors. And yes, in Germany, larger presses like Suhrkamp Verlag do release the occasional book of poetry—but these are few and far between, little literary prestige items to hold up to that flickering candle for posterity.
There is much to say on this subject—which we don’t have time and space for here. Germany, Switzerland and Austria, although catering to the same language audience, each have their little anomalies. Of the three countries, Austria, with its well-developed grant and stipend system, is probably the most supportive of individual artists. Basically, with the exception of a handful of small presses, few publishers are willing to take risks on poetry these days. To survive on poetry—at the very least, to create the semblance of a poetic career (in the U.S., there is still the “option” of the academic path) is a virtual impossibility in the German-language literary world.
- You have a new book coming out … Could you say a few words about it? Maybe post a poem here from that collection?
Well, last December, Ampersand Books released a limited-edition illustrated chapbook of my long poem, Sibylline. Spuyten Duyvil is just about to release my translation of Jürg Amann’s last collection of poetry, Lifelong Bird Migration, but what I have been working on most recently—as yet unfinished—is a collection of my own work, The Syndicate of Water and Light. Here’s one from that collection-in-progress:
A Final Gathering
Filling up stolen time
with bids and
an evening sky
it is lovely
above the city
in the flight
of the snow geese,
still, the party continues
and the streetnoise
beneath the sniffles
and the coughs and
that faint voice enduring
I might be thinking
we are divided
like thieves, when
a trembling pre-
monition that things
of substance, suddenly
washes over me.
- How did you and Danny begin working together?
Danny was introduced to me by the prolific translator and poet, Alex Cigale, whose translation of the Russian absurdist poet Daniil Kharms was just released by Northwestern University Press. Danny and I struck up a friendship quickly, realizing that our poetic tastes mirrored each other. In 2013, MadHat Press joined forces with Plume to begin publishing the Plume poetry anthology. Danny also invited me to join his editorial team at Plume online. Since then, aside from publishing the anthology, we launched a new imprint at MadHat Press, Plume Editions, which, among other things, now also publishes single-author poetry chapbooks and collections—and soon, translations too. Plume Editions recently released a chapbook by W. S. Di Piero, The Man on the Water; but has many new books lined up for release, including full collections by Jeff Friedman, Chris Buckley, Sally Bliumis-Dunn, JT Barbarese and Jennifer O’Grady.
- You also design the book covers for MadHat. Could you talk about the designing process? And maybe show two or three of your recent covers?
In a way, the cover designing process is a form of translation. More often than not, I’ll let the books sink in, reflect, reflect again—and then, all of a sudden an image will arrive in my mind. For example: fog on a beach, or a house reflected in a flowing river, or a lunar landscape, or … anyway, you get the idea. It is very much an artistic process—finding the image that fits, then—the typography that sinks in or soars out of the visual reflections of the book. Over the years, I have compiled an archive of my own photos, doodles, paintings, visuals captured on the fly. I often reach into my pot to see if something fits what I have in my mind’s eye. If not, I’ll create an image from scratch. For example the cover image for Michael Anania’s newest collection, Continuous Showings (MadHat Press, 2017) is based on a photo that I took in Varanasi, India; Matt Babcock’s new book, Strange Terrain (MadHat, 2017) features a photo that I took in southwestern Iceland.
Born in Hong Kong to British-Swiss parents, Marc Vincenz is the author of eight collections of poetry and several chapbooks. Vincenz is also the translator of many French-, Romanian- and German-language poets, including the Herman Hesse Prize winner Klaus Merz, Erika Burkart, Alexander Xaver Gwerder, Robert Walser, Ion Monoran. Jacques Chessex, and Jürg Amann. He has published eleven collections of translations. His translation of Klaus Merz's collection, Unexpected Development, was a finalist for the 2015 Cliff Becker Book Translation Prize and is forthcoming from White Pine Press. Vincenz has received many grants from the Swiss Arts Council and a fellowship from the Literary Colloquium Berlin. His own work has been translated into German, Russian, Romanian, French, Icelandic, Georgian and Chinese; Bucharest’s Tractus Arte Press released a Romanian translation of his collection The Propaganda Factory, or Speaking of Trees at the 2015 Bucharest Book Fair. He is Executive Editor of MadHat Press and Plume Editions, International Editor of Plume Poetry, Co-Editor of Fulcrum, and lives and writes in Western Massachusetts.
Nin Andrews is the author of seven chapbooks and seven full-length collections. Her website is ninandrews.com.