Haun Saussy and Teresa Villa-Ignacio

Sounding Translation episode 3

Photo of Haun Saussy in Rwanda by Paul Farmer.

Bridget Ryan: Hi everyone! You’re listening to Sounding Translation, a podcast featuring interviews with translators of contemporary poetry. I’m Bridget Ryan, Stonehill Class of 2023, and the producer of this podcast episode. In this interview with Teresa Villa-Ignacio, Haun Saussy discusses the origins of his motivation to translate Francophone Haitian poetry, which was to give the American public a more well-rounded and positive outlook on the Haitian community during the 1980s and 1990s AIDS epidemic and refugee crisis. Saussy also discusses the value of Haitian culture and history as well as the poetic styles and literary influences that inspired the poets he has translated, which include René Bélance, René Depestre, and Jean Métellus. Saussy reads from When the Pipirite Sings: Selected Poems, [published by] Northwestern University Press in 2019. It is a translation of the original, Au pipirite chantant by Jean Métellus, which was published by Maurice Nadeau in the Les Lettres Nouvelles collection in 1978. This interview was recorded on June 25, 2014, in Chicago.

Teresa Villa-Ignacio: So, you came to Bélance first, right? To René Bélance, or did you come to Métellus first?

Haun Saussy: Well, this goes back — like many things in my life — to my friendship with Paul Farmer. Back in the middle ’80s, he’d taken me down to Haiti a couple of times already. And he was just desperate to get something going in healthcare for the poor. Basically, he wanted to redeem the bad reputation of Haiti throughout the world. This was the time of the AIDS epidemic, and there were lots of refugees, always going to Florida on these makeshift rafts, and they were drowning on the way, and once they reached Florida, the INS would usually catch them and put them behind barbed wire in camps. And the Florida newspapers — which Paul was seeing often because of his family living in Florida — were full of just irresponsible journalism about these “disease-ridden, poor Haitians who were coming to infect our shining shores.” You know, as opposed to the virtuous and perfect Cubans who had fled tyranny and so on. Anyway, the Cuban-Haitian duality was very, very strong in Florida at the time, and it was very hypocritical, I felt, of Floridians to be this way. But anyway, Paul was trying to start what later became Partners In Health, and trying to get money and support and other things. He had, at one moment, at the end of a whiskey-soaked evening, convinced me that what I needed to do with my life was go to medical school and become a doctor for the poor.

Villa-Ignacio: Wow! I had no idea.

Saussy: It took a lot of whiskey.

Villa-Ignacio: [Laughs.]

Saussy: And then I woke up the next morning feeling pretty terrible, and also realizing that I just didn’t like the sight of blood, and I probably would not be the doctor for the poor that Paul wanted me to be. I had to tell him, “No, sorry, the deal’s off, but if there’s anything else I can do …” and Paul said, “Well, what about, what about writing books about Haiti?” and so forth. So, we got this idea that we would translate a few Haitian poets and send them around and get them published, and sort of bring Haiti into the position that certain other Latin American countries had conquered with the great rise of people like García Márquez and so on. So, I thought okay, great, we’ll show that this is a nation of great culture and refinement and subtlety, and not just a place where you get shot in the back of the head for disagreeing with someone. And so we picked three poets, very different poets, and these were the easy poets for me, because, although by that time Paul was speaking Creole like a pro, I’m still very fumbling and imperfect in Creole. And also in Creole everything is spoken in proverbs, so what you say and what you mean are often very far apart, and unless the listener knows what’s meant, the words are just not even relevant. I didn’t feel at all confident in my ability to deal with Creole, but these are the three poets who wrote in French, so I could translate them. They’re René Bélance, René Depestre, and Jean Métellus. At the time, they were all three living; since then, Bélance died. It’s extremely sad, he spent most of his adult life in exile out of Haiti because he ran afoul of Papa Doc, like many people. He went and taught French literature in Walla Walla, Washington. Long after retiring, when Baby Doc was finally chased out of Haiti, and there was now a democracy, he was invited to come back and be part of the constitutional convention, or whatever they call it, the committee of sages that was going to frame a new constitution. And so, he was back in his family’s house in Port-au-Prince, over eighty years old. And one night, he went to answer the doorbell and someone simply killed him right there, just bashed him in the head, left him for dead, and went looking for something valuable in the house. And there wasn’t anything valuable. People thought, of course, if he was a guy returned from America to do this important thing for the state, he must be some kind of a big cheese, and if you’re a big political figure in Haiti, you, of course, have stashed away lots and lots of other people’s loot in your house — it didn’t apply at all to Bélance, or many other honorable figures in Haitian politics. Someone misread the situation and poor Bélance paid the price. Anyway, he died, but after an extremely distinguished career as a fine poet, teacher, and just all-around righteous dude. So I miss him very much.

The other two: René Depestre is still alive. He’s become more famous for his short fiction lately, and of course, it’s controversial, people accuse it of being sort of self-exoticizing and sexist as all get-out, and so on. That’s okay; he’s an interesting person, and he’s had quite a political career, as a guy on the left, and then as a guy who sort of said “No, it was all an illusion,” he comes back to a position somewhere right of center, but also saying “I’m done with politics.” So Depestre is still alive, living (I hope happily) in the south of France.

And Jean Métellus left Haiti around 1957, shortly after Papa Doc came into power. Went to France, poor as a church mouse; he supported himself by cataloging books in a library while studying, and was received in a medical school, became a neurologist, and had a long and successful career as a professor of neurology and a practicing neurologist in Paris. And every night, he would wake up at three in the morning, go downstairs, and sit under a picture of Toussaint L’Ouverture and write poetry — just extraordinarily explosive, rollicking, oratorical, meltabankish poetry. And then when it was eight thirty, he would drink a cup of coffee and go be a neurologist. So anyway, an extraordinary man, who died just last January. He was, again, in his eighties. You wouldn’t think of him as old; he was one of those people who was always vigorous and was always ready to do the next thing that came to his mind. But he’s written an enormous shelf of books. A lot of fiction, but a lot of poetry.

So of these three, anyway, I translated all three. Paul translated some poems, I did some, we did some in collaboration. A selection of them have been published here and there. I was able to get a good chunk of Bélance published in Callaloo all as a connected series, and two or three Depestre poems here and there. I’m still hoping to bring out Métellus in a chapbook, maybe, that would be centered around his long poem that he published first in 1978 called Au pipirite chantant, or When the Pipirite Sings. Now, the pipirite is the first bird to sing in Haiti.

Villa-Ignacio: In the morning.

Saussy: When the sun comes up. In the morning, yeah. The sun comes up, then the pipirite sings. So it’s a proverb: “Au pipirite chantant” means “very early in the morning.” You can make sort of a home counties, meadowsweet, English pastoral translation by calling it “at first larksong,” but that would send you down the wrong road immediately. I suppose you could try to transpose everything, but that would be too much trouble — just take all the Haiti out of this intensely Haitian poem, and make it be about Suffolk or somewhere.

Villa-Ignacio: [Laughs.]

Saussy: I’ve never been to Suffolk, I don’t know England at all, I know England only through poetry.

Villa-Ignacio: I join you in that company. That’s amazing.

Saussy: So that’s the story of how I got started with this book about Haiti, which had a very funny career.

Villa-Ignacio: Do you mean the Paul Farmer reader? Or the book?

Saussy: No, no, no, I’m sorry — the book that we ended up never publishing called Three Haitian Poets.

Villa-Ignacio: Oh! I didn’t realize, so you and Paul Farmer had decided to publish a scholarly book?

Saussy: That’s right, but mostly consisting of translations. There was an introduction and the French text, because most of the work had been out of print already.

Villa-Ignacio: Why don’t you still do it?

Saussy: Well, I’ll tell you the twisty career of this book. We completed it, there was an intro – that at first was just too long. It was resuming the whole history of Haiti. I said, “Paul, nobody is going to stay put to read this enormous introduction. You’ve got to use it for something else.” And so, Paul used it as a chapter of one of his books, AIDS and Accusation.

Villa-Ignacio: Oh, the Aids and Accusation book. I remember that chapter, it is long.

Saussy: Yes, it’s long and it’s got tons of excerpts of all kinds of great stuff.

Villa-Ignacio: It’s very useful.

Saussy: Yeah, so anyway I trimmed it to start basically with the generation that grew up in the American occupation that started in 1915, ’15–32 I believe. Because this is the moment when Haitians realized, with a kind of slap to the face, that in the eyes of most of the world, they were not Frenchmen who happened to be descended from Africans, but they were Africans. The reason that they realized this is that when the American Marines debarked in Haiti, supposedly to forestall a possible German incursion — I don’t know if there was ever a serious plan on the part of the Kaiser, to make a base in Haiti during World War I —

Villa-Ignacio: Anything is possible.

Saussy: Well, the US government took it as kind of a carte blanche to do what they wanted to, pretty much, but they were terrified that the Caribbean would become the German sporting ground. They bought the Virgin Islands from the Danes at that point. And Haiti, rather than buying it from the Haitians, or doing something, and maybe creating kind of a partnership with the Haitians — which would’ve been nice — rather than that, they declared that there was a German menace and they sent in the Marines. So the Marines arrived and they found that not everything was to their liking. Roads needed to be built etc., etc. And so they went around simply corvée-ing people, recruiting every able-bodied man to go break rocks, and pave streets, and it didn’t matter if you had a PhD from Berlin and had been a diplomat in St. Petersburg — which actually happened to one such man. If you were a Black guy walking around the streets of Port-au-Prince, you were eligible to do manual labor. So Haiti, is a very stratified society, even if everyone were more or less the same color — there is a folklore about color distinctions there still — but nonetheless, in Haitian law, it’s inscribed in the constitution that all people are the same color. Nonetheless, a very hierarchal society, but the Americans of course had no understanding of the hierarchy, no respect for it. People who belonged to the elite found themselves at the bottom of a heap, on which stood, let me say, just racist and ignorant American military men, many of whom had come from Georgia, South Carolina, other states where you probably would be ill-advised to be Black and outdoors at night. So, alright, that was a big slap, and as a reaction, many of the Haitian intelligentsia of the 1920s began to think of themselves as having a connection to Africa, having their own folkloric traditions that were not going to be used just as decoration, but that were going to become the thematic center of the kind of poetry that they wanted to write about. This is the generation of Négritude. Practices like vaudou, which everybody kind of swept under the rug when speaking to outsiders, now became a really vital cultural practice that everybody was interested in. Even people whose ancestors had not been in a voodoo temple for eight generations — suddenly everybody was interested in voodoo. Jean Price-Mars, the diplomat with the PhD from Berlin I was mentioning just now, wrote this magnificent book, Ainsi parla l’oncle, which I think must tend to be a kind of a trope on Ainsi parla Zarathoustra in French, right? Thus Spake Zarathustra, in which the uncle, the elder, the person in your family who knows the lore and knows the folktales and so forth, sits you down and tells you the stories. And this book is kind of a recovery of rural Haitian folklore, and a program for Haitians to reconstitute their identity around the stuff they had suppressed. So that’s the great transformation that was wrought, despite themselves, by the US Marines.

This was very early in my academic career, and I think I didn’t understand the kinds of irony, I mean I wouldn’t say that academic writing is exempt from irony — it certainly isn’t, we love irony — but you have to be careful what kinds of irony you use (and when and about what). I put together a shortened version of the introduction that concentrated on the 1920s, and on the American occupation, and this transformation of identity. Then there are the translations from the three poets and on the first page of the introduction, I quoted an American Marine who had just disembarked and who was rubbing his eyes and said, “This place is crazy, there are all these Black people” — of course he didn’t say Black people — “speaking French.” I quoted this as an example of being utter inability of the Marines to understand anything about the country that they were occupying, and alas, when I sent it to a university press, I got a very irate letter back from the reader who said, “How do you think that we can publish this racist claptrap,” etc., etc., basically just dressing me down. So I said, “You know, something’s funny here. I’m going to put this aside for a while until I understand a little bit more about the market.” Now I could’ve simply cut that part out of the introduction, but I was stubborn and I thought, “This is an important point that needs to be made.” I kind of sat on it for a while, probably for too long, and then there was talk about a special number about Haitian surrealism, and so the Bélance piece found its way into Callaloo,and other things came out on different occasions.

Who knows, maybe the Three Haitian Poets will come out eventually as a book, although I also think that the motive for it might be somewhat gone, because in the interval there’s been a new development of literature, and poetry, and theater in Kreyòl, which was almost invisible in the 1980s when I started getting interested in this thing. There are people like Frankétienne who were writing in Kreyòl, who were writing very seriously. If you went looking for books in Kreyòl, you basically had a version of the Bible that the Presbyterians had put together, and some comic books that were also didactic, put out by this or that well-meaning North American foundation, and that was about it. Everybody wrote in French, even Papa Doc, who loved to say how authentic he was — he wrote his memoirs in French. That was really the passing of an era, and I think a good passing of an era, but I couldn’t quite follow Haitian literature into that. I hope to eventually, one of these days, spend more time in Haiti and become more familiar or find somebody to work with who is more keyed in and learn enough about the literature in Kreyòl to do something with it. Anyways, that sort of left our Three Haitian Poets writing in French in a funny kind of in-between parenthesis.

Villa-Ignacio: Do you feel like they were unduly influenced by, or maybe that’s not the right way to put it, but living in the shadow, writing in the shadow of people like Césaire? Depestre was a little bit after Césaire, right? And both Bélance and Métellus must be the generation after that. Is there a way in which that legacy — I know he’s from Martinique and they’re from Haiti and so there’s already a difference but, I don’t know, he just seems like this giant figure.

Saussy: Césaire, I should know his dates, but he’s around 1900, he was born around 1900 or so?

Villa-Ignacio: He died only very very recently, just a few years ago. Maybe 2008, I think.

Saussy: Yeah. And Métellus I think was born I think in 1930, and Bélance sometime in the ’20s. They are the generation that when they were schoolboys and teenagers [they] were reading Césaire with the greatest appreciation. In fact, I think Au pipirite chantant, this great long poem by Métellus, is kind of an homage to Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, the Notebook of a Return to my Native Country.

Villa-Ignacio: “Au petit bout du matin” is the frame [in Césaire’s poem]. When you were describing that [Au pipirite chantant] it reminded me of that.

Saussy: Yup, yup. It’s definitely a reminiscence of that, but in another way, these guys were prodigies. They matured very early, less so for Métellus, who had to go through medical school and his neurology residence, and published his first book in 1978 when he was, therefore, forty-eight. But Depestre published his first book at sixteen, I think. Bélance, very young, was included in this epical anthology of Black and Antillean poetry by Léopold Sédar Senghor, he’s got five poems in that thing, sitting right next to Sédar Senghor and Césaire, and all the great surrealists of the time. He was clearly bathed in surrealism, that remained his idiom all through life. Depestre, he was publishing something closer to Éluard, more like Éluard and Aragon, but with a big pinch of Rimbaud in the mix. One of my favorite poems by him is called “Images for an Anti-Autobiography,” and to me it’s a brilliant Haitian homage to “Les poètes de sept ans” by Rimbaud, where this whole thing about growing up and having an imagination that’s bigger than your life, and everything you see is always being transformed into something that you read about in a book, and so on. Anyway, great poem.

So yeah, that’s the generation that they belonged to. They’re a decade or two younger than Césaire, but his frequentations will be theirs. When Depestre finally makes it to Paris, he goes and knocks on the door of Aragon, and Aragon welcomes him as a brother, they were both Communists of course, and so Aragon introduces him to Les Lettres Françaises, which is the big journal of very erudite literature on the left, and so that’s how he came along into letters. With Bélance it was a little bit more complicated, but he had his entrée by way of Sédar Senghor, and he published a couple of very slender plaquettes, little chapbooks of poetry, published them in Port-au-Prince, although he wasn’t living there, but he I guess felt that his audience was there. So he didn’t have the same international circulation, but there’s also a lot to say about style and figuration and so on that maybe we can get into. It’s really a case of the kind of poetry he writes and the kind of venue where he brings it out being deeply connected. Bélance I feel always writes in a whisper, kind of distractedly as if his mind is on something else. Whereas Depestre is looking you right in the eye and doing a performance, and all the more Métellus. Their path was definitely marked out by Césaire; they didn’t take all of his options. The evolution of Martinique into a “Domaine d’outre-mer” and a department and so on, that was obviously out of the question. That’s the one thing that you could probably bring all Haitians together with was a proposal like that. They would reject it one-hundred percent.

Villa-Ignacio: That independence will always be there, it defines them in a certain way. I just think it’s so interesting that you say that Bélance has kind of been a surrealist all the way through. In the little note you wrote to introduce the poems you translated for Callaloo you talk about his pedagogical style, if you will. Or this idea that he’s trying to instruct his nation. But everything that you are saying about his poetry (at least from what I’ve been able to read) seems true. It does seem that he’s surrealistic, it does seem that he is in certain moments trying to instruct, and he definitely does speak in a whisper. You can hear that both in his poems and in your translations. There are just these very practical parts of his poetry. I don’t even remember what it was, it was something like “sow and reap every day.” How does that work with the surrealist side? How does that balance out?

Saussy: It’s as if — I don’t know, it’s kind of a round trip. He’s talking about things that are unprecedented, unimaginable, and then he’ll mention that it would be a nice thing if you could take the bus for ten kob, like one penny. That’s true. I guess you could say it’s all communication, it’s all about circulation. There are these little glimpses of a possible future Haiti in which things will be different, in which life is not going to be so brutal, in which people are going to provide for one another. You see that sometimes it’s kind of a rural reminiscence where he says “j’ai mangé dans la mamit,” “you have eaten in the pot of the people who pool their labor,” because there is this custom, sort of like Amish barn raising, where people do the hard work of harvest together and then everybody eats out of the same pot. He’s writing as an educated man, so already he belongs to that tiny, tiny veneer of Haitian people who have been able to get an education and learned to read and write, and to publish in French. And he’s conscious of that, he doesn’t feel that that makes him superior. He’s also, I think, got a little nostalgia for the country-togetherness of the people who are doing the harvest and eating out of their mamit. Thematically, I think the flights of fancy are maybe compensated for by these little practical suggestions about the price of mass transit and the misfortune of people who have been injured in accidents and stuff like that. As a way of saying, “Okay I can do that stuff, but I also am part of the world that you’re thinking about everyday by engaging in it.”

Villa-Ignacio: Well, that’s a really wonderful thing to do with a lyric voice, too, right? To say that you encompass all of these things, right? And that a poet from a disempowered place, or a place where a lot of people feel disempowered, can show that one can have just as much imagination, and just as much kind of metaphysical breadth of thought.

Saussy: You’re making me think of Milton’s poem, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” which has this beautiful line that I’ve always loved. It’s about saints, and sages, and prophets of other times: “Let down in cloudy throne to do the world some good.” The first half of the line is very pompous and epic, and the last half is just as plain as Mistress Quickly, just down to earth. There’s something like that kind of pathos of the simple and everyday in Bélance that I find very appealing. I think the word “pedagogical,” by the way, has taken on a bad connotation in our world, right? Because everyone assumes that if you’re pedagogical, you’re standing on a soapbox and preaching to people.

Villa-Ignacio: Right, you’re being pedantic. Right.

Saussy: Yeah. There’s even in the world of postcolonialism, a strong bad connotation to the word pedagogical, because I guess people endured unwelcome pedagogy from outsiders. So I think Bélance is aware of the danger of that kind of position and is doing his best to conjure it away.

Villa-Ignacio: Yeah. Well, he succeeds.

Saussy: So I think!

Villa-Ignacio: Do you have any Métellus that you haven’t, that you feel like reading, any of these three?

Saussy: Oh yeah sure, tons. Tons of Métellus. Let me go a little bit more about why Métellus too, because of course it’s Paul who discovered these three guys for me. It’s kind of like other things, your chance or encounter, puts you in a situation, but then you find the parts of the situation that speak to you. And so my feeling as translator about Bélance and Métellus is very different. Bélance is somebody who I would say is kind of like me, personality-wise. Of course, you never know what effect your writing, what your own style is like —

Villa-Ignacio: What do you mean he’s like you personality-wise?

Saussy: Well, I think he likes the sly irony tone, he likes the aside, the parenthesis, the little inside joke. Metrically he’s deliberately taking the springs out of the line and making it kind of prosaic. Sometimes so unstressed that it becomes a form of stress. He likes paradox, he likes that kind of thing, and I sort of think that that’s probably what my writing is like. You never know what your own writing is like. Everybody thinks that they dance just fine, you don’t want to know what other people think about your dancing. Métellus is as different from my writing persona as anybody could be. He’s a V8 engine roaring all the time at the top of his voice, and it’s great, I love it, I love translating Métellus because I become a very very different kind of a person. Maybe not convincingly, but I try. His whole thing is just a pile on, pile on, pile on, and then add some more. It is far from this sort of parenthetical whispered style of Bélance. I used to joke with Métellus that he must always write in a trance. It’s Haitian voodoo: you get possessed by the loa, by the spirits, and he would always laugh with me about this and say, “As a neurologist I really wouldn’t think that I would legitimately go into a trance, and I would be observing myself and that wouldn’t count,” but I think there’s something like that. He gets himself going in this incantatory mode, and he is transported into this other realm of language.

Villa-Ignacio: Seems suspicious, I mean, he’s getting up in the middle of the night to do all these things.

Saussy: I always just told him: I think you’re possessed. We have a good laugh with that.

Villa-Ignacio: Did either of the three of them read English, or, you know, look at any of the translations that you had done? Did you consult with any of them?

Saussy: Let’s see, I sent them to Bélance and Métellus. I didn’t have a way of contacting to Depestre, I think I sent something to his French publisher and never heard back. But those poems were published in kind of a small circulation journal, so I figured it probably wouldn’t be a big deal about the copyright. Monsieur Depestre, if you hear this, call me, I’m happy to talk!

Villa-Ignacio: Yes, thank Haun for disseminating your work in English!

Saussy: Métellus, I always sent what I was doing to him, we would talk about it, I think mostly he would just say, “Thanks for sending it, I’m really happy to see it.” He didn’t really have concrete suggestions. I’m sure Métellus had to speak English because, you know, it’s the scientific language. But did he have an ear for English poetry? I don’t know. There were hundreds of conversations that I expected to have with Jean Métellus, and I just didn’t have the chance to. One of them would’ve been “What about Walt Whitman?” for example, you know. Who was there for you when you were coming along in English, that might’ve been a model or inspiration or somebody to write against? I suppose I can always have my theories about that. Here, let me put up some Métellus, let’s see. Métellus in the early ’60s, in the high period of Papa Doc, writes a series of sonnets against American involvement in the Caribbean called Le caïman étoilé (The Star-Spangled Crocodile). [Editor’s note: actually written by Emile Roumer, another Haitian poet.]There is one sonnet that is particularly brilliant where he speculates that — while Americans typically shoot their presidents, nobody wants to shoot Lyndon Johnson, because if a parricide is what you are when you kill your father and a tyrannicide is what you are when you kill a tyrant, if you shot Johnson, then you’d go down in history as an insecticide — which nobody wants.

Villa-Ignacio: Wow.

Saussy: Du grand style! I was going to look for that as an example, you know, the reach of Haitian poetry. This is something that Maréchal would’ve been proud of. La Rochefoucauld would’ve had a little envious twitch.

Villa-Ignacio: Vian.

Saussy: Vian would’ve been, totally. So, let’s look at a little bit of Métellus.

Villa-Ignacio: So, remind us again when that book was published.

Saussy: This is a poem written in the early ’70s and published for the first time in 1978 in the first collection by Métellus in the series Les Lettres Nouvelles, which was kind of associated with left politics. In 1978 there was still a left in France. The story of the poem is very simple: it’s morning in Haiti and at the sound of the first pipirite the farmers come out and start to work on their fields. It involves, of course, the ancestors and the gods and so forth. The gods watch the people hoeing their rows and tying up their banana plants and so forth. Here comes the series of the gods.

              Ces dieux ont trop bu sur nos palissades
              Leur chevelure reflète les rides du temps
              Maintenant ils se regroupent dans les flammes
du jour, étonnés, ébranlés
              Au premiere vent, Ogoun vêtu de blanc, jambes
croisées, avec sa pipe de terre cuite, perdu dans
sa fumerie a voté pour un soir de sang
              Et le souffle de sa pensée est une aubade à
l’impatience de ses fils
              Et sa parole est la lacerie de nos palabres, la
pure boisson du soleil,
              Hourra pour les dieux et la mer furieuse du
diapason du palmier!
              Hourra pour leurs gloussement confus dans
la sable, pour le tyran de tant de vies, pour cet
aquarium de parfums, pour ces rustreries savamment
              Le sang chaud d’un porc fume dans un hameau
              Et les clochettes ivres de l’angélus nous bercent

So you get the gods in all of their beauty and their horror, because Ogoun, who is descended from the god of iron workers in West Africa, so he’s the god of making weapons, he’s a terrifying god, in that way, but he’s also the god of technology. So, you depend on him, you need him, as General Electric used to say, he brings good things to life. But he’s also demanding. He’s one of the gods who will not do anything for you unless you sacrifice something big, like a pig. Sometimes, as the poem says, he votes for an evening of blood, because Ogoun would also be responsible for massacres and horrible things, you know, just as in Homer — the gods are not morally responsible, they’re the causes of everything, but they can walk away from everything. So, there’s how it goes in French. You can recognize the Claudelian, the long verse, and the fact is, a lot of biblical rhetoric in Métellus. I feel he’s got Victor Hugo, and the Bible, and Latin American magic realism and all kinds of things mixed up in there. That’s the mix that makes it so good! Now let me find you that same passage.

Villa-Ignacio: It’s kind of grandiose.

Saussy: Yeah, yeah, it is!

The gods have drunk too much on our fences
Their hair reflects the wrinkles of time
Now they reassemble in the flames of the day, startled, in commotion
At the first breath of wind, Ogoun, dressed in white, his legs crossed, with his
clay pipe, lost in his cloud of smoke voted for an evening of blood
And the respiration of his thought is an ode to the impatience of his sons
And his word is the weaving of our deliberations, the pure drink of the sun,
Hurrah for the gods and the crazed sea of the palm tree’s turning fork!
Hurrah for their blurred gurglings in the sand, for the tyrant of so many lives, for
this aquarium of odors, for this artfully polished roughness
A pig’s hot blood smokes in a distant village
And the wild bells of the Angelus sing us their lullaby.

In fact, as I think of it, let’s stay with Ogoun here for a little bit. There is another Ogoun poem here that’s all spoken in the first person. This is maybe better as an introduction to Métellus, just a little sliver of this long poem of Au pipirite chantant, this is a poem called “Ogoun.” I mentioned a little bit about the backstory of Ogoun as one of the African gods that came over with the people who were transported.

I am, said Ogoun
The mountain of mud, of evil, of curiosity
I wasn’t the just the god of Haiti’s land
I was the god of her oceans
I was the magic
My mouth was your fountain, your universe
That war was no tournament
It whirled round every hut
When you came to see me
You staggered like sheep stricken with scabies
All those things you now tell as legends
Bore the stamp of your God!
Now I’m only a rumble from your past
I who turned your disasters into victories
I put an end to the blind perversity devouring you
To cruelties and cyclones humming with human blood
All the bullets that strayed into your bodies
I dug them out with my sword
I made you forget the ropes that trussed you
And the ships where you fornicated in the urine and excrement
Maybe you miss the days when they flayed you alive
And you walked chained up and branded
And to think I rocked you under the tragic tropical sun
Back then your breathing space was the quarters
Your elbow room a huge pit
I had to sculpt your whipwheals
And out of your peoples, your jumble of tribes
I fashioned a people with a future in its face
Too much talk irritates me
Hold up, hold up my struggling body
The air of my passion, the wings of my exploits
Still exalt my altar
Thankless sons
Give me GIVE ME the veneration I deserve
Moonshine, molasses, rum, a little lamb no longer suffice
Wait till you’re rich to offer a bull, a candlestick
Like a tree dropping already insect gnawed fruits

Villa-Ignacio: That’s amazing. Arrogant, arrogant voice.

Saussy: That’s who you’re dealing with. This is truth in advertising. This is the kind of guy Ogoun is. And I think Métellus became a little bit of Ogoun every night.

Villa-Ignacio: You got the sound in there, cyclones, what was that line? The cyclones and something humming. There’s a very rich sonority in your translations. Do you find it difficult to translate at all? Since you say he’s very different from you.

Saussy: Yeah, you know, he takes me to places I wouldn’t always go. Here, in fact, for the accuracy fans, I’ll read a few lines from the original here.

Ce que maintenant vous racontez comme une
C’était la griffe de votre Dieu
Je ne suis plus pour vois qu’un murmure du passé
Moi qui changeais vos désastres en victoires
J’ai mis fin à la peversion aveugle qui vous
Aux cruautés et aux cyclones bourdonnants de
              sang d’homme
Et toutes ces balles égarées dans votre corps
Je les ai extirpées avec mon epée
Je vous ai fait oublier les lassos qui vous ont
Et les bâteaux où vous avez fourniqué dans l’urine
              et les excrements
Vous regrettez peut-être le temps où l’on vous
Où vous marchiez scellés, enchaînés
Et moi je vous ai berces sous le soleil tragique
              des tropiques.

I hope I was catching the rhythm and the movement there.

Villa-Ignacio: I think you were, yeah.

Saussy: Translation is in fact a little bit like possession. There was a great anthropologist, Alfred Métraux, who had studied psychoanalysis and who was very alert to the idea that when people went to a temple to become possessed by the gods, in a way they were method acting. They were allowing themselves to bring to the fore, maybe make their exclusive personality out of something that existed in them in a mixed and maybe a suppressed or repressed state. It was therapeutic for someone to become a tyrant like Ogoun, or a seductress like Erzulie and then be able to fall down on the sand and come back to consciousness, and have done that but not have to carry it the rest of their lives, until next week. There’s something like that in translation too, you know?

Villa-Ignacio: Definitely, in this particular case for you.

Saussy: There are days when I feel that I would be very happy to be a seven-foot Black neurologist in Paris.

Villa-Ignacio: He was seven feet tall?

Saussy: Okay, well to me he was seven feet tall.

Villa-Ignacio: You’re already pretty tall.

Saussy: He was at least six foot five. Métellus was quite a guy. That’s what translation is, you can also become a fourteen-year-old girl in Tang Dynasty China, as voiced through a forty-year-old drunken poet in Tang China, as voiced by the thirty-year-old Ezra Pound in London. It’s all about passing the ball and playing the role.

Villa-Ignacio: Incarnation and reincarnation.

Saussy: Yeah!

Villa-Ignacio: I should add for our listeners that you are wearing a polo shirt that celebrates Haiti’s bicentennial — which you must have done on purpose! I just noticed like five minutes ago!

Saussy: Well, it was what I had on today. It wasn’t on purpose, but it’s symptomatic!

Villa-Ignacio: You were in that Haiti mood? That’s pretty great. Anything else you want to read?

Saussy: It’s funny, I spend a lot of my time on China stuff, but I don’t translate very much directly from Chinese, particularly classical Chinese. Line for line I might’ve translated more stuff from modern Chinese poetry than from classical Chinese — there’s not a lot of it. I tend to translate something when I have to illustrate a point in a paper. That’s kind of funny, I don’t really have a reason for that. It may be that classical Chinese is for me a special language within a special language. And I’m more interested in the things that would be so difficult to reproduce in English, that somehow, I don’t ever try to go up that mountain. Although, there are people that I admire and respect, like Jonathan Stalling, who are using tones for example, in English verse, in emulation of Chinese. And who are writing phonetic variants, sort of in the Zukofsky-translating-Catullus style of Chinese poems. That seems to me, a great way to go right through the middle of the problem of what doesn’t translate. In fact, I have another doctrine about untranslatability, which is kind of a semi-optimistic take. I don’t believe in untranslatability because when you say what’s untranslatable, you’re at least describing it, you’re circumscribing it, you’re somehow defining it, and so you’ve gone part of the way. You might not translate it to your satisfaction, or in the same number of syllables. You’re already undoing your denial that the thing is translatable. I guess that’s a bit of optimism there.

Villa-Ignacio: You’ve already launched yourself on the trajectory for translation.

Saussy: Right, right. In a way, what you have now is a report on the untranslatable that is a supplementary translation. The way to think about it is not the logic of the equivalent, but the logic of the supplement. Thanks to Monsieur Derrida we’ve learned how to think about the logic of the supplement and not just be trapped by it and trapped in the cycle of trying to deny that it’s there and have it gradually take over our lives.

Villa-Ignacio: Well, Derrida is another good example of someone who doesn’t necessarily translate any books or poetry, or books in general, but he is doing a lot of translation in his scholarly work, like what you’re doing. That’s valuable too, right?

Saussy: I’ve just learned so much from the example that he gave, of taking all the time in the world to read something, and not thinking, okay, I’ve got the nugget, now I can move on. There was always something to go back to.

Villa-Ignacio: He can never move on.

Saussy: We live in a very hurried culture where we’re supposed to be efficient and expedient. Just to watch him going back to the well again and again, and even foregrounding his own reference to the hundred earlier times he had tried to get something out of some particular line or text or something. It was very heartening to watch.

Villa-Ignacio: So, no Chinese, classical or modern, translation projects on the near horizon?

Saussy: Well, there are projects of commentary, discussion, and analysis. There’s a project about translation, but again about abusive translation. This relates to a couple of pieces that I’ve published already. There’s a piece about a translation of Baudelaire by the 1920s poet Xu Zhimo that for some reason I read the translation and it wasn’t a very accurate translation. You could say all kinds of things about how he got Baudelaire wrong, didn’t understand what Baudelaire was doing, but there was something very significant in what he was doing, in the poem preface that he put together. I worried about it for years, and I think I finally got it. He was using the early Chinese philosophical book Zhuangzi as a kind of “pretranslation” of Baudelaire. The Zhuangzi book is kind of scandalous in its way. It’s always breaking taboos and violating decorum and sneering in the reader’s face. I think Xu Zhimo read Baudelaire in probably very defective English translations, because I don’t think he had much French, and then recognized some of the same things going on, and then translated Baudelaire using phrases and concepts stolen from Zhuangzi. If you wanted to understand that relationship as one of equivalence, you’d just give up. There wouldn’t be anything there. It would be kind of a delusive kind of equivalence. But, if you look at is as a way of saying translation is not about making an equivalent, it’s about pillaging what you have in order to make something new out of it, it’s about making a collage of existing things that will be surprising to Chinese readers the same way that Baudelaire in 1857 was surprising to the readers in France. That, I think is exactly what Xu Zhimo was doing.

So, I worried about that for a long time and finally came out with an article about it that tried to take the Baudelaire poem and its ancestry having to do with theories about digestion and generation and whatnot that Dante was using and so on. The way Dante pays into the Petrarchan tradition that Baudelaire was subverting and all that, and a similar series of things going on in Chinese, by way of Zhuangzi’s subversion of moral norms in the fourth century BC repeated at various points in Chinese tradition. I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that Zhuangzi is somebody that people come back to again and again in Chinese history. When the Buddhists first came across the mountains to preach to the Chinese, people said, “Well, what are you talking about? This subversion of this idea of desire, this notion that you should not be invested in the things that you want to have come out, this idea of meditating in order to extinguish thought: this all sounds like Zhuangzi.” The earliest Buddhist scriptures were basically kind of cut and paste operations using latter phraseology from Zhuangzi. After a hundred or so years, people looked back and said it actually wasn’t very good Buddhism, it was a kind of variant of already existing Taoism. So then they sent people back to India to learn the languages and to translate things into a language that would be more Indic sounding, less Chinese sounding, more remote from ordinary Chinese. But that generation where they were doing the cut and paste interests me, because there’s where you had some real poetic activity. Maybe it’s the Kenny Goldsmith style of operation, where you’re exerting unoriginal genius. Then in the seventeenth century, when Italian Jesuits come along, with a new set of legends and stories and philosophical values, they too are interpreted by the Chinese as being disciples of Zhuangzi in some way. The earliest books talking about the Jesuits use all this phraseology of Zhuangzi. So I said, this is kind of a strange resource, it’s within the Chinese tradition, but it’s kind of the revolving door that allows you to be inside that tradition but make room for things that are foreign. And of course, after that initial operation of welcoming the foreign thing, through the natively strange that Zhuangzi represents, then you come up with another more domesticating or differently foreignizing version of the foreign. But that’s already an operation that can happen only after the ideas have become familiar and the terrain has changed. It wouldn’t have changed without those initial operation. So I said, why don’t I write a book about these case studies of how Zhuangzi becomes this revolving door. It’s about translation, but mostly about what we think of translation as being. It’s more about cultural appropriation, it’s a kind of self-appropriation. It’s an appropriation of the parts of your own tradition that have never quite settled down and that are somehow magnetically drawn to this new and strange thing that you don’t quite understand.

Villa-Ignacio: That’s crazy, that was a lot of movement there.

Saussy: I know! People get seasick reading this book.

Villa-Ignacio: It’s great though. You translated the Xu Zhimo, the preface, and you translated his translation. It was really lovely reading it, actually, I discovered it a long time ago and I was looking at it again. There’s something so obviously pretending to be naïve about, “Oh, I am a country bumpkin, and I really don’t know, and I think everything is music.” That must be interesting too. In the article, “Une Charogne” is the first kind of piece that you lay out. That’s in French, you can give that in French but then you have to give the Chinese and English! That’s not fair. That must be difficult, that’s not something I have to deal with working on my own with Western languages. You must be over that. Is that a weird thing to have to negotiate?

Saussy: It’s fine, it’s fine. I feel like it’s almost like insider trading. Imagine that there’s this enormous deal that’s going down and three people know about it, I mean how could you not? I hope people on Wall Street withhold themselves from doing unfair things. I’m not under any kind of a rule. I’m lucky to be privy to this conversation where intensely exciting things are happening that kind of whiz by most of our ears most of the time. There’s a lot of this sheer discovering and so on to do.

Villa-Ignacio: So much more work for you to have to translate, I mean it’s a pleasure it must be a joy, but it’s an additional layer of translation that you have to do, or interpretation.

Saussy: Well, I guess, but I love to recover the moment where things are not familiar yet. I can just imagine there are people who picked up that journal in the 1920s with Xu Zhimo’s translations, and said “Oh yeah, foreign poetry, it’s all about dead animals!” It was the right piece of foreign poetry that they’d seen and, you know, obviously it must be representative.

Villa-Ignacio: Right. This must be what they care about, decomposition. What a horrible people. Let’s not pay any attention to them.

Saussy: Imagine being the first person to tell somebody what Baudelaire is about.

Villa-Ignacio: Yeah, that would be tough. Actually, I have had to do that, but they’re American twenty-first-century college students, so I’d like to think that they’d have more points of connection but that’s not always true.

Saussy: It happens to all of us. I was lucky, I got my Baudelaire in a good way. When I was very small I used to cut the grass for Allen Tate, the eminent poet who was living in Nashville. He was very old, and he needed to be close to the hospitals in Vanderbilt then. My family knew Mr. Tate, and so I volunteered to go over and cut his grass. After I cut the grass, we would sit on his porch and talk about Paris in the ’20s. He wanted me to convert to Catholicism, which I did not do, but also to read Baudelaire. These two things were connected in his mind because Jacques Maritain was the man who had kind of brought him into the Church; Maritain had started his operations trying to convert the literary intelligentsia with a book about Baudelaire’s aesthetics, as a Thomasian aesthetics. An extraordinarily counterintuitive thing to do in the 1920s. So Baudelaire was kind of the bait on the hook as it were. Well, somehow, I think the game’s not played yet, so far I seemed to have removed the bait from the hook.

Villa-Ignacio: I feel like Baudelaire was a good excuse to become Catholic if that’s what you want to do. He really demonstrates how you can indulge in sinfulness all the way.

Saussy: Yeah, you get all the passion and all the repentance in one convenient package. At fourteen I was trying to read my way through Baudelaire, I didn’t really have enough French, but New Directions was publishing these translations, by Enid Starkie or somebody. They were good enough to show you what was going on. If it hadn’t been for Mr. Tate, I might’ve had to wait to be eighteen or something to encounter Baudelaire, like normal people. He “speeded” my life up by four years at least.

Villa-Ignacio: So, on one hand you’ve got Haiti, on the other hand you’ve got China. These are cultures and geographic locations that are very far apart, classical Chinese and twentieth century Haitian poetry. Do you see connections between these two? In your life and in your work, how would you discuss that?

Saussy: Sure, sure, in all kinds of ways. Haiti and China are two places where intellectuals are extremely important. They have a huge role to play. When Métellus died it was reported on the front page of every paper in Haiti. People who didn’t even read heard about it and were suitably sad and awed, because a poet means something, and I think that’s great. In China too, the poets and the artists are important enough to continue getting jailed and in trouble because of what they say, we all know this is the land of unbearable lightness. This is where you could certainly get yourself in trouble for saying things, but probably not for writing a deep and profound and complex book. We don’t have censors who will bother to read a five-hundred-page book, right? They might read your tweet if you use three or four forbidden words or say something that sounds like support for something that we are all officially against. The attention span here is so short that I think the possibility for intellectuals to make a dent in the culture is not so much there. Maybe it’s the paradox of plenty. We have so much that we don’t have the time to pay attention to it. The way of receiving works of literature is to gobble it down, or read the back cover, and move onto the next thing. In a place where the information is very sparse, you get the maximum out of what information you have. I have friends in China who during Cultural Revolution times, when anything foreign was more or less forbidden, they would get a hold of 1950s translations of works of world literature and pass them around at night. If you got a copy of Balzac, you would spend all night reading it, then pass it onto your friend the next day. There was great intensity around that scarce information. Haiti, in a way, is a place where reading is a privilege that not everyone gets to participate in, but more and more people do, of course. One of the things that astonished me in my first night in Haiti, again, an indication of poverty and dedication, was when I went out at night in Port-au-Prince, under the streetlights kids were standing with their textbooks reading out loud, walking in circles under the streetlights because they didn’t have light at home, and preparing their lesson for the next day. Reading out loud, the ancient method for acquiring something by memory, and I heard them from far away, and I thought they were some unusual tropical insect. I came out to the street to see what it was, and it was kids, reading, in a kind of rarararara, a buzzy sound, reading to themselves. So, that was a very strong image for me of how much it meant for them to be able to get education. Which of course for them, it was mostly education in a more or less foreign language — French. They really had to overcome a lot of obstacles to get what they wanted, and they were not going to let the lack of electric light at home stand in their way. So of course, China and Haiti have both changed enormously. I can’t even begin to say how many things have changed in China since I first went there, also in 1983. A few things remain, one of them is the sense that people that write books are important people — whether or not you agree with them. There’s my little piece of American nostalgia. Obviously complicated and often brutal societies frequently repress information and the people who produce it, but who don’t take it for granted.

Villa-Ignacio: Well, we have repression of information in our country too, don’t we?

Saussy: We do, we do, it definitely goes on. The career of whistleblower is not an easy one, is it? In every place there’s the boundary written around what’s not allowed. That for me is one of the tragic things of living in the US most of the time since 2001. The way that the culture has become defensive, triumphalist, and chip on the shoulder-ish and so on. I still kind of think that we’re doing this wrong. Maybe translators can help a little bit!

Villa-Ignacio: Maybe translators will help in demonstrating these other points of view or bringing them home in some way.

Saussy: That’s a project I want to encourage in any way I can.

Villa-Ignacio: Well, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Saussy: But of course!

Ryan: Thank you for listening to this interview of Haun Saussy, conducted by Teresa Villa-Ignacio. This is Bridget Ryan signing off from this episode of Sounding Translation!