Yvette Siegert on Winning the 2017 BTBA for Poetry

Having announced the judges and details for the 2018 BTBAs just a couple days ago, it’s an appropriate time to revisit last year’s winners—in particular Extracting the Stone of Madness by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert, and published by New Directions. Below you’ll find some remarks from Yvette, along with an audio recording. Enjoy!

I would like to thank the judges for selecting Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972 for this year’s Best Translated Book Award for poetry. (It was 2 AM in Switzerland when I heard the news. I was up late doing my Portuguese homework.) Heartfelt gratitude to my brilliant editors at New Directions—Tynan Kogane, Jeffrey Yang, and Barbara Epler—for everything they did to bring this book into the world. Thank you, as well, to Ana Becciu and Mónica de la Torre, for their commitment to Pizarnik’s poetry, and to Mieke Chew for accepting the award in my absence. And, finally, thank you, Chad and everyone at Open Letter, for doing the remarkable work you do on behalf of literature and/in translation.

There are always those books that obsess you and won’t let you go. Alejandra Pizarnik’s devastating work is like that. I was 20 years old when I entered her tortured world (the lilacs, the dolls, the cadavers and gardens and crows). Sometimes, what begins as an obsession will flourish into an impulse to translate. That impulse becomes a full creative act, akin to writing a novel or gathering the pieces for a poetry collection. It was never my conscious ambition to become a literary translator, but like Pizarnik, I am the daughter of immigrants and have been translating and interpreting since childhood, so nothing could feel more natural, more grounding. Her writing teemed with an urgency that resonated deeply and that practically demanded my advocacy. It felt like a relentless kinship. What’s more, the desire to find an English for these vibrant, harrowing poems came from an almost tactile artistic need. The result is that I grew up while translating Pizarnik. The experience was exhilarating, often brutal. Our minds got very close; our languages matured together; and her solitude inhabited and changed me. As I translated and revised, I was often the same age as Alejandra when she was writing collections like Diana’s Tree and A Musical Hell. Soon I will be older than she was when she died, and that feels like uncharted territory. It’s at once thrilling and terrifying to receive a prize for something that has been a part of my life like this.

The book’s title comes from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch called De keisnijding (1494; Prado Museum, Madrid), which, in English, is known interchangeably as The Cure for Folly or Cutting the Stone or The Extraction of the Stone of Madness. This work depicts trepanation, a medieval surgical technique believed to relieve various diseases, like migraine, and to remove madness, which was believed to manifest as a tumor in the skull. I opted for the gerund extracting in the title in order to convey the actual process depicted in Bosch’s piece, which in a way parallels Pizarnik’s process of creation.

César Aira once said that Alejandra Pizarnik “was not only a great poet, she was the greatest, and the last.” To hear from readers and writers who have been changed and wrecked by this book has been an extraordinary privilege. I am grateful to the BTBA for this opportunity to share Pizarnik’s work.

—Yvette Siegert
May 2017

Museo del Prado.

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