Rosa Alcalá, 2015.  Photo by Jeff Sirkin.
Rosa Alcalá, 2015. Photo by Jeff Sirkin.

Rosa Alcalá's impressive work with language takes shape as poetry, essays, criticism.  A thread running through through much of her work is translation, though perhaps its presence need not always be announced, or even understood. 

In the conversation below, we started with the translation that is more visible in her writing career.  In fact, we began our talk by focusing on some opportunities that may not be so common, in translation writ large.  One:  when  a translator gets to think across decades of a writer's work, rewinding to works published by the author in earlier decades and returning to earlier versions of one's own translations.  Two: when the translator successfully collaborates with a living writer over the course of many years, encountering new ideas and modalities along the way.  Most translations, it would seem, will happen on a smaller scale due to the kinds of publication options out there (full book publications being few, and multiple book publications in translation being even fewer), as well as the commitments potentially required of both translator and author to sustain the collaboration.

KD: I know you’re presently working on an anthology of writing by Cecilia Vicuña for Kelsey Street Press, one that begins with selected poems from the 1960s and 1970s.  You first began to work with Vicuña as a translator in the 1990s, by which time her work had changed.   Rewinding in time creates a new meeting for you with other phases of her life and career.  It also seems like an occasion for reflecting on the different commitments of time and care made by translators, not only to texts but to people.  In this case, you’ve worked with a writer for twenty years and through an extended friendship – it’s not a relationship that all translators get to have with writers, and perhaps not all would seek it out. 

RA:  My first translation of her work was Palabra e hilo/Word & Thread, published by Morningstar Press (Edinburgh, Scotland) in 1996, and, yes, I’ve been translating her work, on and off, since then. The selected poems allowed me to not only translate new work, but to also delve into a period of her writing that, stylistically, bears little resemblance to the writing she is known for now.  In translating these poems from the 1960s and 1970s, however, I’ve noted that thematically she was exploring what would become the conceptual, aesthetic, and one can say ethical, groundings of her work. In that period she’s thinking about indeterminacy and chance, which are fundamental to her current approach to performance, but she’s also offering alternative models for thinking about female sexuality, the body, the environment, politics, and poetry, that have subsequently shaped much of her visual art and writing.

Additionally, the selected poems—which also include translations by Eliot Weinberger, Suzanne Jill Levine, and others—have given me the opportunity to revise my earlier translations. I really thought I’d cringe at the clumsiness of the early versions –like seeing a picture of myself in 8th grade wearing a Rick Springfield t-shirt—but I was surprised by how intuitive and wild some of them are. I have tried to not overcorrect, remembering that the energy of those translations was generated during a time when I was as a temp (a secretary) for a number of firms in New York’s financial district, blocks from Vicuña’s place, and I’d work on them while answering the phone, or whatever, and then fax drafts before going to her place after work. We’d collaborate on revisions, have dinner, etc.  It was such a messy, precarious time that I just went on my gut a lot, and now, with the luxury of an NEA and the (mostly) uninterrupted time it has afforded me, I can think carefully about my choices, while, hopefully, retaining some of the previous inclination towards risk and playfulness.

This past March I went to New York to discuss the manuscript with Cecilia (and also visited Lila Zemborain, who lives in the same building, and who I have also translated), and I was reminded of the intensity and intimacy of that time, of what formed me as a translator and poet.  We’d begin by trying to resolve some particular translation issue, and instead our discussions would go farther and farther afield, into messy terrain strewn with the bits of personal history, origins, loss. And then it would be lunchtime.

Those errancies of my collaborative approach (in Glissant’s sense of productive rhizomatic wanderings) don’t necessarily “solve” the problem—and more likely complicate it—but they’ve allowed me immersions into the minds and lives of interconnected bodies (living and textual). And these immersions reveal each time that all bodies are always both rooted and in flux; are built of particulars (historical, personal, linguistic) but also exceed them. And that the body of the translation is not that of the original. That’s why there’s no solution, ultimately, for bridging that gap.

KD:  When reading your renditions of Vicuña’s early poems, I found a most interesting tension around the confluences of “proper and improper” behaviors, formal and informal voicings.  To me it suggests two things.  First, it’s an effective capture of social and generational forces in her poetry:  she was challenging gender expectations, and as the critic Juliet Lynd has written beautifully, Vicuña was radical even amongst the leftists and poets of her day because they were so often relatively conservative in their ideas about gender.  Second, I see your awareness of negotiating gender here.  As a poet and thinker and speaker, you’re very adept at projecting dignity and maneuvering formal tonalities.  I see you creating translations for a young Vicuña who projects a dignified and thoughtful side even while she’s writing through things that seem to run counter to it:  wildness, sexuality, racial and economic hierarchy, and other topics (frequently tied to the body) that were considered outside the pale for a niña buena.  Abandon plays off against restraint, and even command, within your structures of language and word choice.  This balancing gives the set of early poems a specifically complex, and historicized, sound.

RA:  These are excellent observations.  The rhetorical strategies—drawn from Siglo de Oro poetry, as well as the “brindis,” or toast—collide with surrealistic imagery in those early poems.  It’s the young poet bringing together her influences, her poetic formation, to say something new. The speakers of these poems, in which sexuality and wildness and radical ways of thinking (politically, socially, etc.) are explored, often present themselves with authority—that, I think, is what’s beyond the pale here. A woman writing about her sexuality during this time would have been scandalous considering that Vicuña was born a year before women were granted the right to vote in national elections (1949)—but that she does so with a certain command and mastery is what makes it “shameless.” I am thinking in particular of the poem “The Brilliance of Orifices,” in which lists her boyfriend’s, well, orifices.  Here she adopts the voice of the orator: “I might even tell you a story…” it begins, and in this story the many virtues of the boyfriend’s orifices are recounted and praised, including the “craters” of his penis and anus, which, she writes,

[…] allow things
to exit, but also to enter
They cover a moist organ
and go FOOZ FOOZ when functioning
To them we owe the grace of aroma
and mustiness
Which is why they are called awakeners

What’s astonishing about this poem, written when she was only 20, is not its eroticism or its unbridled desire, but its objectivity, its empiricism, in the sense of observing, categorizing, and interpreting the boyfriend’s body, in speaking for it.  And in imagining an audience eager for her account.  That she assumes this role, unimaginable for a young woman, is what connects her to poets like Sor Juana. It is important to note, too, that Saborami, the manuscript that contained these poems, although selected for publication, never came out during that period—an act of censorship, according to Vicuña—and has only now been published in Chile as Zen/Surado (Editorial Catalonia, 2013).

KD:  Let’s talk about performance.  Earlier in this series I noted that it’s a very broad term – as a result, when translators are dealing with a poet who deals in performance, we need to convey something specific about its relevance to the audience for the translation.

Vicuña is a performer, which makes this topic directly relevant for you.  Meanwhile, you’re very clear about not seeing yourself as a “performance poet” even though you researched performance extensively for your dissertation.  What tools or strategies have you adopted, as a translator, for dealing with performance?

 RA:  When I began translating Vicuña’s work, I focused mainly on the text, not on her performance. Aside from thinking about formal strategies that are naturally enhanced in performance (musicality, rhythm, etc.) I didn’t think too much about performance—as if this was something that came after the written. After some time, it became clear to me, however, that what I was translating from the page and for the page was a small percentage of her poetry, and that her ethos, her poetics, lie in that space of not knowing that is the present of performance, where existing texts (including my translations) are fractured into song, or stories are pulled from notes and woven in situ. So in 2002 I began to transcribe recorded performances, discovering along the way that her performances, while ever-evolving, contained common structural and thematic elements worth studying as part of her interdisciplinary artistic project. Ten years later, this research into Vicuña’s performances resulted in Spit Temple (Ugly Duckling Presse).

It’s difficult to pinpoint the ways in which my research on performance—or my translations—has changed or impacted my own poetry. I’m not a performance poet or artist in any sense, but as a bilingual speaker whose mother tongue, Spanish, is not necessarily my dominant tongue, language has always been performance, and poetry and translation a means to enact/establish/ prove fluency, credibility, and legitimacy (a credible/legitimate/ fluent speaker, citizen, expert, writer, scholar etc.). That (my) poetry and translation can never truly enact/establish/prove these things may be the great cosmic joke (on me).

I’m often asked how my translation has impacted my poetry, and I’m always stumped by the question. When I was translating part of Lila Zemborain’s Mauve Sea-Orchids (with Mónica de la Torre), with its sea and its swimmer, water seeped into my poems, resulting in my second collection, The Lust of Unsentimental Waters. But I was also then reading conquest chronicles and translation theory, Langston Hughes’s autobiography, The Big Sea, and William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain. The water could have seeped in from those readings, too—how to tell one water from another?


Related links:  See the water on the cover of Alcalá's 2012 poetry collection, The Lust of Unsentimental Waters (striking covers being characteristic of editor Tony Frazer at Shearsman Books); and more on Spit Temple