Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative recently published Querido Pablito / Julissimo Querido: Selected Correspondence, 1950–1971, the letters exchanged between Paul Blackburn and Julio Cortázar. We spoke with the editors—Ammiel Alcalay, Jacqui Cornetta, Alison Macomber, and Alexander Soria—about the process of selecting and editing the letters and what they reflect about the two writers and their relationship with each other. (Read an excerpt from Querido Pablito / Julissimo Querido.)
Words Without Borders (WWB): Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come across these letters?
Ammiel Alcalay: I’ve been a reader of Paul Blackburn forever, since I was a teenager in the late 1960s; his work just grabbed me immediately and stayed with me. I first became familiar with Cortázar around that time through seeing Blow Up, the Antonioni film based on a story of Julio’s that Paul translated. So I’d been aware of the relationship for a long time. While our Lost & Found mission statement refers to “figures central to and associated with New American Poetry,” in reference to poets in Donald M. Allen’s essential 1960 anthology—most of whom remain very much outside mainstream US culture—our deeper mission has been to show just how unexpected some of the lines crisscrossing through that anthology and those people actually are. The Blackburn/Cortázar relationship seemed like a perfect example of this and it’s a project I’d had in mind for quite some time. Given that most of the students I’ve been working with on Lost & Found until fairly recently are in the PhD Program in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and tend to be monolingual, I kind of had to wait until I could gather some students who would be up to the task of working on these very multilingual letters and, of course, they materialized through the Queens MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation, where I now mainly teach. The extant letters themselves are housed in Blackburn’s papers, at the University of California, San Diego, and one of our graduate students, Erin Glass, happened to be working at the library and she was able to do some of the primary digging. From what we’ve been able to understand, there isn’t a Cortázar archive, so we relied on the five-volume collection of Cartas edited by Cortázar’s first wife, Aurora Bernárdez, for supplementary material. Also, Lost & Found—with the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, and The Poetry Project—organized a two-day symposium on Blackburn in 2016 and I was able to finally meet Joan Blackburn and Joan and Paul’s son Carlos, and this gave the project a tremendous push.
Image: Julio Cortázar and Paul Blackburn, summer 1968 in Provence, France. Photo by Joan Blackburn. Used with permission of Joan Blackburn.
WWB: What do we learn about these two writers—their work but also their artistic visions—in this correspondence?
Alexander Soria: “Entirely whole.” This is how Cortázar describes Paul in an early letter. Julio also writes about Paul’s “presence” and the “invasion” of Paul through the tapes he sends to Julio in Paris, of readings and music. There is a sense of Paul’s dedication to the “message,” not only within his poetry but in his translations as well.
Alison Macomber: We immediately sense their artistic visions through their blaringly unique use of language as they twist and bounce through and between English and Spanish (and occasionally French). The process of translating was thrillingly exploratory—as if we were pioneers, hiking our way through this new territory of “green and wet bugs,” the “toothpastes of famas,” “EL PAQUETE” and “EL OTRO PAQUETE,” all the while remaining fully cognizant that this language was virtually effortless and humorously casual for these two, like putting on a pair of socks is for the average human. But behind this playfulness, another layer of Julio and Paul’s artistic visions subsists. These visions rest on the contemplation and consideration of ethics, of human decision or indecision amidst governing bodies, and of the exploration of new lands and cultures; these visions emerge through the existential calamities of life, like the slipping of time, or navigating the path of a close friend’s physical sickness and suffering as we see in the course of their friendship and the emergence of Paul’s terminal illness.
There is a constant reference to political events as they trade news, whether about US involvement in Santo Domingo, Vietnam, or the situation in Cuba. Julio’s enthusiasm for the Cuban revolution persists, despite disagreements with certain policies, and these letters are an invaluable resource for firsthand information as it crosses from friend to friend: in a letter from April 1, 1963, Julio writes about Cuban intellectuals:
“I met all of them, I heard them speak, I listened to their criticisms (because the criticisms are many, but they’re not negative, they always propose something constructive), and I was convinced that a revolution that has all the intellectuals on its side, is a just and necessary revolution.”
And in a letter from May 18, 1965, Paul explains how he is
“on two committees for action of writers and intellectuals against American policy in Vietnam and la Republica Dominicana. I’m not terribly discouraged, but one would think you could scratch an intellectual and find a revolutionary, it’s just not true. Half are organization men, and the other half think one ought not to break the law. One can find allies in both camps, but it’s slow work, I must say.”
Both Julio and Paul’s frustrations with their respective and shared realities propel the course of their creative visions as individuals of action—both agree that intellectual inactivity is one flame fueling the fire of political disenfranchisement, and these letters provide another way for us to read their work. Ultimately, as we see most movingly in letters from the last five or six months of the correspondence as the gravity of Paul’s illness becomes clear, writing stands as a form of connection, an action toward experiencing and feeling the other’s friendship, that extends even further than the idea of artistic vision alone.
Cortázar and Blackburn immensely enjoyed working through snags in the translation process together . . . Their willingness to play gave us permission to approach our project with that same imaginative generosity and trust.
WWB: Those of us who haven’t edited this kind of work before might well ask: what were the particular difficulties of editing this correspondence? Translators and editors of the work of deceased writers might, I imagine, be able to sympathize. We might tend to think of letters as easier to edit, to translate, but without recourse to the writers themselves, what other source material proved crucial to resolving any questions that came up during the course of the translation?
Alexander Soria: I would begin by saying that the issue of “presence” was key for us during the construction of this project. First of all, we spent many hours together sifting through letters and finding ways to narrow the selection down. But that was only the beginning of our problems. The next was to account more fully for Paul Blackburn because there are far fewer of his letters extant. So we were forced to “fill in the gaps,” and, thanks to Ammiel’s wonderful editing by inserting historical text in between the letters, we were able to construct a narrative that explained what was going not only in Paul’s life but also between Julio and himself.
Ammiel Alcalay: We also focused on letters by Julio that were direct responses to Paul, in which, in effect, Julio accounts for what Paul was up to between letters.
Alexander Soria: By looking at other letters of Julio’s, and some of Paul’s, we extended out further: who was in conversation with whom? What was being read? When does Gregory Rabassa start to appear? How do Paul’s friends—George Economou, Rochelle Owens, Robert Kelly, Charles Stein, Carolee Schneeman, Toby Olson, Armand Schwerner, and so many others—become Julio’s friends? These are things that help construct knowledge and a new history of extended relations and connections for that time.
Jacqui Cornetta: Looking at Blackburn’s translation of Cronopio and Famas was a window into their philosophy of translation, which was a great aid when we had to make difficult decision in our process. This passage from Blackburn’s translation of “Simulacra,” a story in the collection, explains it better than I can:
“We do things, but it’s difficult to tell about it because the most important elements are missing: the anxiety and the expectation of doing the things, the surprises so much more important than the results, the calamities and abortive undertakings where the whole family collapses like a card castle and for whole days you don’t hear anything but wailing and peals of laughter. Telling what we do is hardly a way of filling in the inevitable gaps, because sometimes we’re poor or in jail or sick, sometimes somebody dies or (it hurts me to mention it) someone goes straight, finks out, renounces us, or heads in the UNPOSITIVE DIRECTION.” (29–30)
We locate very simple translation “errors” in Blackburn’s translation (there is no easier place to fish for mistakes than in translation, since failing is so necessary to the process). Why do “we live in Humboldt Street” and not on it? Is Blackburn attempting to be a stranger within his own language or is he just not sufficiently keeping the two languages out of each other? His slangy “someone goes straight, finks out, renounces us” and “heads in the UNPOSITIVE DIRECTION”—in all caps in the English and only capitalized in the Spanish—take the tone in another direction. Blackburn adds an additional verb and crafts a new play on words. We might translate the passage more conservatively as “someone betrays or renounces us, or starts working for the IRS.” Something key is lost in Blackburn’s translation, while something else is created. In the Spanish, the “Dirección Impositiva” is a government agency akin to the IRS, and although there is the possibility for wordplay similar to in the English “unpositive” or “not-positive,” the word is defined as domineering or relating to taxation in Spanish. Blackburn’s “UNPOSITIVE DIRECTION” in all caps is more enigmatic and less culturally specific, but delightful. These kinds of compromises are necessary to translation, but Blackburn makes a particularly inventive leap here, choosing the subtlest twist to the words, barely present in the Spanish, as opposed to their cultural meaning. Cortázar and Blackburn immensely enjoyed working through snags in the translation process together, and there are numerous drafts filled with notes in the archival materials. Their willingness to play gave us permission to approach our project with that same imaginative generosity and trust, in each other as collaborators and in our relationship to their intimate texts, the culling of letters and our translation and presentation of their movement through language.
Image: Paul Blackburn, summer 1968 in Provence, France. Photo by Joan Blackburn. Used with permission of Joan Blackburn.
WWB: As the introduction to this volume of Lost & Found tells us, Blackburn and Cortázar corresponded through a mélange of English, Spanish, and French. How did this factor into the preparation of this volume?
Jacqui Cornetta: As we explored the relationship between Blackburn and Cortázar, a palpable sense of trust, friendship, and love—enacted through translation—emerged. The vulnerability they so quickly adopt in their letters evidences a lighthearted approach to language, more of the poet than the scholar. They shift through the languages they have at hand—Spanish, English, and French. No code is switching. They are moving through their own words, discovering what they have within their personal language—and allowing it to expand in contact—finding what can be brought across an ocean to the friend on the other side.
One of the first decisions we had to consider was what language or languages should appear in our final selection of letters. Ideally, we would have included the originals in their entirety and attached the translations as a kind of supplement, ideally outside of the text, so as not to break the flow (for example, as an insert), but the book would have been too long considering the resources we had available. We feel the shifting between languages, which is continuous, is fundamental to the texts and we sought to represent this somehow. Ultimately, we decided to represent the shifting in brackets, indicating [Spanish] or [English] as they toggled between them, as well as opting to leave pieces of Spanish and the occasional French in the original language. Nevertheless, this cordoning off felt counterintuitive on another level. Though it was imperative to show that Cortázar and Blackburn very freely move around between languages, flicking a switch every time they moved went against our own better judgment as people with many languages interacting in our own heads. We opted to describe the fluidity of their movement—not back and forth between, but through and with—through the introductory material at the beginning of the text and in section overviews throughout.
In the first letters, they each opt for the language of their soon-to-be dear friend, Cortázar using his Argentine Britannic-English peppered with the lingo he picks up through his love of US jazz, and Blackburn writing in his unabashedly ungrammatical Spanish, which he learned while living in Spain. These letters function as offerings and invitations. Blackburn seeks to show his admiration for Cortázar and to receive his blessing to translate Cronopios and Famas. Blackburn’s Spanish is vulnerable and messy, but far from insecure. He begins his letter by humbling himself with an apology (here in our English translation):
“Pardon me two things: (1st) my Spanish, the structure, which you were to find very amusing, since I’m not a grammatician, but a poet: and that I say ‘tu’ to you that I don’t know. I was touched profoundly by your cronopios when I have read Edith’s copy. Affinities. And also, I don’t write to anyone in Spanish, that were not a good friend. Four years ago, when we have arrived in Algeciras without five words, it was Usted that and Usted this, and we have Usted-ed magnificently for six months. And right when we had made the friends, then, we could not ‘tu’ them. Anyway, more education.”
Cortázar responds enthusiastically, enchanted by Blackburn’s fearlessness with Spanish:
“As you wrote me in a magnificent Spanish, I am going to answer in a no less remarkable English. I suppose that a half dozen of good dictionaries and a great deal of patience will help you decipher this letter. Salud, amigo! (This little Spanish is just to get my second wind as they say). Paul, I was very happy reading your kind and highly imaginative letter, so I immediately proclaimed you one of the biggest cronopios that ever lived under Helios.”
Blackburn’s idiosyncratic use of Spanish posed a series of translation challenges, due to grammatical errors of gender agreement and verb tense and the occasional invented word, but none of this hinders him from having a voice, clearly his own. We tried to maintain his singular flare, keeping the blunders we came across (though, of course, different ones, because alas, we cannot even make errors in the same ways in translation). In translating this letter and others, there was something freeing about being able to make mistakes, even if the goal was to make them well, when one is accustomed to the labor of the faithful translator. In many ways, their fluidity of language grows with their friendship.
There was a sense that Cortázar and Blackburn were holding our hands in selecting and, especially, in translating their work. They themselves showed us how to do it. Their playful exchanges and movement through language, their own prose and poetry, and the choices they make as translators gave us the clues. We wanted to make it feel right above all—to imbue it with their love and generosity—and they told us we had to trust them and ourselves in that creative endeavor. As we got deeper into their texts, we felt we had their blessing.
As we explored the relationship between Blackburn and Cortázar, a palpable sense of trust, friendship, and love—enacted through translation—emerged.
WWB: Blackburn played an instrumental role in Cortázar’s work in English. He was, of course, the translator of Blow-Up: And Other Stories (1968), as well as his Cronopios and Famas (1969). But his role went beyond translator when it came to Cortázar’s work, did it not?
Ammiel Alcalay: Absolutely. At the time, Paul was married to Sara Golden and she worked in publishing so Paul became, in actuality, Julio’s agent. A lot of the letters are involved in very mundane things: sending royalty checks, news about possible publications, and so forth, so there was a lot of work being done. And, of course, how they wrote to each other about this role is quite hilarious, as one can see from reading the letters.
Alexander Soria: Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of this relationship is the bond of friendship established early on in their work together. That Paul Blackburn was “considered his soul in the US” by Julio should not be taken lightly. Rarely (if ever) are translators able to establish such deep connections with an author right from the beginning. Once the relationship is established we begin to see a development in Cortázar’s writing style that coincides with the frequency of their correspondence and the introduction of Cortázar’s work to English readers. One of the final letters that we publish, written after Paul’s death to the poet Toby Olson, a friend in common, perfectly exhibits this arc: while Julio’s first letter notes his “remarkable English,” this one is apologetic: “my English so bad… I can’t write no more.” It is almost as if, with the death of his friend, we see the evaporation of the source of life for Cortázar’s English.
WWB: The conversations between Blackburn and Cortázar touch on the work of other important translators. One of the subjects that comes up in their letters is Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Hopscotch. We learn, too, about Cortázar’s correspondence with Rabassa. What do these letters reveal about this monumental figure in American literary translation history?
Ammiel Alcalay: Not only do we get the translation coming up in the letters but the writing of Hopscotch itself is prefigured in the letters, like a big secret that Julio is about to foist upon the world, and on Latin American letters in particular. But something that further connected me to this project is that I had the distinct privilege of knowing Gregory Rabassa, both as a teacher (when I was at the Graduate Center in the 1980s), and then later as a colleague when I started teaching at Queens College. For me, there is Gregory’s inimitable humor (easy to see how he and Cortázar would have gotten along), almost impish in a way, and his insatiable curiosity, not to mention the vision and dedication he had to bringing so much across various political, aesthetic, and formal barriers.
Alexander Soria: To even speak the name Gregory Rabassa is a powerful invocation. Having studied at Queens College as an undergrad, I always heard his name, especially since he still maintained connections with a variety of my professors and was still involved with the college in some capacity. Yet I never really knew who he “was” or that he had translated some of the most influential texts that would have an effect on my very being later on in my studies. I would hear stories about him, some from the classroom and others about his methods for translation. One in particular that I remember comes from an interview of his some years ago. He would only arm himself with a dictionary and typewriter and get to work, maybe he would read the book as he went along or sometimes a few months before. All this was groundbreaking for me. I asked myself: with such ease? Did he care? Was he a jokester? Perhaps, but it was this very individual who time and time again cracked open and created new approaches for translation with such seemingly simple comments.
Going back to the letters, Rabassa appears again and again. As an editor and translator he was prolific, sending proofs and edits faster than Cortázar could process or handle them—at one point, he is referred to as “working at a fantastic velocity.” But that isn’t all. The letters also reveal the power of friends, letters, and will during the Cold War. Aside from Cortázar, Rabassa also translated the great Cuban writer Jose Lezama Lima, who was still living on the island (Cuba) during the blockade. With Greg, his translator in New York, and Julio acting as point person in Paris, the three of them were able to circumnavigate all this! A truly remarkable feat that should not be underestimated.
Image: Julio Cortázar, summer 1968 in Provence, France. Photo by Paul Blackburn. Used with permission of Joan Blackburn.
WWB: It seems to me that Lost & Found is one of the real treasures of the American literary world. This is the fifth volume in the seventh series of this project. Can you tell us a bit more about the history of the series and what we can look forward to in future volumes?
Ammiel Alcalay: Thank you so much for saying that! And the Before Columbus Foundation in the Bay Area agrees with you, as they honored us with an American Book Award. That really means a lot to me as I think it’s the most significant cultural award in the country, something that really has made great inroads in defying the parochialism of the New York literary world. In any case, it’s kind of hard to believe that we’ve gotten this far: close to forty projects, a number of books coproduced with various presses under our Lost & Found Elsewhere rubric, including a new one this year with City Lights, an extraordinary prose work called Spring & Autumn Annals by Diane di Prima, originally written in the mid-60s. There’s a lot I can say about our history: suffice it to say, I’ve always believed in trying to use institutions as creatively as possible and we had a number of things in mind as we got off the ground. We wanted to find ways to take students out of the academy and bring unaffiliated writers into the academy. At the same time, the idea is to train students in the process of cultural transmission and literary/cultural history while also providing a context in which they can encounter things that are unmediated, or less mediated. What better place to go than the archive? But not all archives are institutional, some are personal or communal. Of most importance is the idea that we are not dealing with pieces of paper or disembodied texts but with people, heirs, friends, and family. This leads to relationships between the editors and those connected to each project, opening up new worlds and extended connections. Some of our editors have become archivists or literary executors. These are all skills that make cultural life possible, that transmit memory and preserve and rewrite important histories.
As we’ve grown, students from different disciplines have gravitated into our orbit and we have several exciting projects in the works that deal with translation. Chris Clarke, a PhD student in French who is an extraordinary translator, has been exploring some almost unknown translations of Rimbaud by Muriel Rukeyser that we first saw quoted by Sergei Eisenstein. Like so many of our projects, this one is sure to open a whole chain of buried connections. Khaled al-Hilli, a PhD student in comparative literature, is exploring the work of the Iraqi poet and translator Sargon Boulos, who came to the Bay Area in the late 1960s and spent many years there translating some major works, such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl as well as many other poets associated with the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance. This project, also, is sure to open up all kinds of unknown relationships. There’s more, always much more! We have a crew working on some lectures by Ed Sanders on Charles Olson; diaries by Thom Gunn; Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri’s renowned Condom Poems; Diane di Prima’s notes and lectures on Shelley; Mary Norbert Korte’s response to Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantras, a series of extraordinary almost ecstatic poems existing in only one handwritten copy. I always have in mind another Amiri Baraka project. The list goes on and on . . .
Ammiel Alcalay is a poet, translator, critic, and scholar, whose recent books include a little history and the second edition of from the warring factions. Initiator and general editor of Lost & Found, he teaches in various fields at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the recipient of a 2017 Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for his work on Lost & Found.
Jacqueline Cornetta is a translator, writer, and musician, whose current projects include a translated collection of short fiction by Mexican women and a book of poetry. She is pursuing an MFA in Literary Translation and Creative Writing at Queens College.
Alison Macomber is a student of the MFA Creative Writing and Literary Translation Program at Queens College, with a concentration on translation and poetry. She has published translations in Cuban Newrrative: e-Merging Literature from Generation Zero for Sampsonia Way Magazine of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh and is now translating The Abduction of Luis Guzmán by Pablo Remón.
A graduate of Queens College, Alexander Soria is a student in the MALS Program at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He is a photographer, poet, and translator from and into several languages.
Read an excerpt from Querido Pablito / Julissimo Querido: Selected Correspondence, 1950–1971