"Watchword" Review and Interview with Forrest Gander
The latest addition to our Reviews Section is an extremely well-written and well-crafted piece by Grant Barber on Watchword by Pura López Colomé, which is translated from the Spanish by Forrest Gander and available from Wesleyan Press.
In addition to writing such a fantastic review, Grant decided to interview Forrest Gander about being a translator and poet. (In case you missed it, Forrest was a finalist for this year’s National Book Critics Circle award in poetry.)
Here’s the interview in full:
Grant Barber: Forrest, you are not only a poet and translator of poetry—Spanish and Japanese (and ?)—also a professor, essayist, fiction writer, book publisher; traveler in conversation with others in Latin America, Serbia, Sarajevo (and other places as well I bet). Are there principles of first-concern for you, some things essential, an overall vision, that tie all of these varied engagements together?
Forrest Gander: Maybe just curiosity, Grant. I want to know what the poets are up to in other places, what I might learn, how we are members of one another. Regarding the various genres, I like the whole hog of the art. I cut my teeth on writing during a time of great formal innovation and genre never seemed particularly restrictive. (Maybe it helped that I studied science as well as literature).
GB: Watchword is a continuation of the translation work you’ve already done—another Pura López Colomé title is No Shelter, a selected poems volume you translated. How does Watchword fit into her oeuvre in general and the selected poem volume specifically?
FG: My first inclination was to say that Watchword is even more intense. But then I think of those bleak poems of hope in No Shelter, its fierce fidelities to the transformative power of language, its spiritual hunger, and I think that No Shelter is just as intense. But Watchword is more concentrated—the gravity of her illness had a lot to do with that—and Pura’s techniques are more honed. There is also a resuscitative joyousness in her focus on friends and family in Watchword. The whole book is like a life flashing before the reader’s eyes.
GB: How is it that you become aware of the writers you translate—Pura López Colomé, Coral Bracho, Jaime Saenz, and the poets of earlier collection of yours, Mouth to Mouth: Poems by 12 Mexican Women and Connecting Lines: New Poetry from Mexico? When I’ve been in bookstores in Oaxaca, Panama City, Quito, I’ve seen all of these books by Spanish writers about whom I’ve heard nothing. You see these piles of books that look so promising, and at least I think to myself, “now only if my Spanish were just a bit better, I could read all of these authors.” To a bibliophile it is a minor torment. So, back to my original question: how do you discover and choose?
FG: The great thing about living writers is that you can contact them and if they’re poets, they’re delighted to hear from a reader. Someone whose work I admire will turn me onto other writers. Also, I’ll pay attention to which presses are publishing the writers I like and I’ll check out other books from those presses. I came across Coral Bracho’s book—the first book I found—in a newspaper stand beside a stack of Super Macho comics in the dusty little town of Dolores Hidalgo. I included her in that first anthology, Mouth to Mouth, but I knew right away that I wanted to come back and translate a lot of her work. It took me more than a decade.
GB: So you have this ongoing relationship with Pura López Colomé, who is herself a translator not only of English but other languages, into Spanish. Did you have conversations with her as you translated about word choices, intent, tone?
FG: With the first book, No Shelter, Pura was shockingly uninvolved. She was completely supportive, but didn’t seem to want to have anything to do with the translation. I think, in part, she was trying to push me to go further on my own. At the time, my Spanish wasn’t as good as it is now and I think she was kind of throwing me into the pool to get me to swim. With the new book, we did work together over a period of two or three days and she was fabulously helpful as I worked through a first draft.
GB: What’s next for you? What project will see print next? Or perhaps it’s not something that will be “incarnate” in a book? What holds your intellectual passion these days?
FG: I’ve just finished a book of translations of a very reclusive poet who lives in the jungle outside Cuernavaca, who knows the names of the local plants and their medicinal properties, who knows the names of the stars, rocks, lizards. And whose work is formally innovative, beautiful and odd and particular. Copper Canyon is going to publish Fungus Skull Eye Wing: The Selected Poems of Alfonso D’Aquino in 2013. Meanwhile, I’m finishing an anthology of contemporary poets from Spain, mostly the youngbloods who are shaking things up, but I include three major older writers who have been beacons for the younger generation. That anthology is Panic Cure: Poems from Spain for the 21st Century. I’m sending it out to publishers just now. That doesn’t really answer your question about “intellectual passion“—or answers it only partly.
Click here to read Grant’s full review of Watchword.