If you ask most translators, they’ll tell you it’s a tired phrase, traduttore, traditore. This play on words from the Italian—meaning, “translator, traitor”—has been in use since the sixteenth century to warn readers of the betrayal inherent in a translator’s task—betrayal of the original text, of the source language, of the author, and of the readers themselves. But certain betrayals—say, a sleight of hand, an optical illusion, a pleasant surprise—are delightful.
I began reading 50 Estados: 13 poetas contemporáneos de los Estados Unidos (50 States: 13 Contemporary Poets from the United States, Bajo la Luna, 2018), compiled and translated by Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, knowing full well its wondrous betrayal: the thirteen contemporary US poets anthologized in the Argentine collection never existed. Every poet, and each of the one hundred poems in the book, were invented by Zaidenwerg himself. The author interviews that follow the poems are “real” in the sense that they actually transpired, but between Zaidenwerg and thirteen real US poets—friends of Zaidenwerg—who have nothing to do with the author-characters they play. Perhaps the greatest of Zaidenwerg’s wiles is that he isn’t the book’s primary translator. With a few exceptions, he wrote the poems in his native Spanish and they were then translated into English by Robin Myers.
Zaidenwerg’s range of poetic voice is almost eerie—each poet seems real, made even more so by the candid (even awkward at times) accompanying interviews. These metafictive machinations piqued my sense of wonder to the point where I found myself Googling each poet, half expecting to discover some other trap door in the book’s architecture. (Joe Urbach, the anthology’s first poet, turned out to be a writer, but of gardening books; pure coincidence.)
Zaidenwerg writes in the prologue (as his compiler-translator character) that “Perhaps translation is a way of showing what was always there, in spite of its never having been.” If there’s betrayal here, then perhaps it’s in the spirit of the word’s roots—be, from the Middle English “thoroughly,” and trair from the Old French, meaning “to hand over.” Zaidenwerg has thoroughly handed us something to marvel at: a Nabokovian experiment, a commentary on translation and authoriality, thirteen protagonists, and a new collection of bilingual poetry.
I spoke with Ezequiel Zaidenwerg at a small café in Tribeca following the release of 50 Estados in Argentina and the publication of his first book in English translation, Lyric Poetry Is Dead (tr. by Robin Myers, Cardboard House Press, 2018).
Susannah Greenblatt (SG): After reading 50 Estados, I began to wonder whether I’d been introduced to thirteen registers of your poetic voice, or if I hadn’t really encountered your voice at all—if I only knew it in the way I “know” Daniel Day Lewis, as a vessel for his roles. This gets to the question of what this book is exactly. Your Argentine publisher, Bajo La Luna, listed the book as fiction. Can you talk a little about what went into that categorization?
Ezequiel Zaidenwerg (EZ): I originally wanted to present the book as an anthology. But then we had a meeting that took place in a very tiny office. The editors were bullying me like, “You need to come to terms with the fact that you’ve written fiction. This is fiction.” When I left the room I said, “Yes, of course, I wrote a novel.” So it was pretty automatic for me to start seeing the book as a novel. And I never thought of it exclusively as a novel, but what is a “novel of poetry”? That’s one of the myths that the book is about.
SG: While the book was labeled “fiction” in the end, the fictive elements are not made explicit in the book, nor in the promotional materials for it. I can imagine someone reading it and then recommending a nonexistent writer to impress a Tinder date. Did you get any flack for the fictive elements and potential for deceit there?
EZ: The idea wasn’t to cheat anyone; the idea was to question how we read poetry. Do we read names, do we read authorial signatures, or do we read individual poems like symbols? There have definitely been people who were offended, who wanted their money back. There was another person who said the book was too expensive for something I had written myself. Pretty cruel. And then there were a lot of people who were happy to have the book reframed for them.
SG: Why did you feel the book should be categorized as specifically a novel within the realm of fiction?
EZ: In the introduction I say that the book can be seen as a “tenuous novel.” As I edited the interviews, there emerged the skeleton of a plot: the history of a poetic scene that is imaginary.
There is a recurring character, Rashida Lopez, who is an homage to Bolaño’s Cesárea Tinajero; there’s a poetry collective called Baroque Obama; there are two author-characters who were married. There is Michael Hoffner, who was in a relationship with Rashida Lopez and then starts dating a guy in Mexico City. A younger poet named Ariella Jenkins references “Rash Lo” and Mike Hoffner’s performance in Chicago, saying that it was outrageous, that some people hadn’t yet recovered from the outrageousness of it. So there are hints that create the illusion of a fractured community and that’s what poetry is: it’s a community. People know each other, they hate each other, they reference each other, they date each other, they break up with each other.
SG: Why did you decide to perform the interviews with other poets instead of writing them yourself?
EZ: First of all, because I’m not a novelist, and I’m not talented enough to pull off what Nabokov did in Pale Fire. I wrote versions of some of these interviews myself while I was doing an MFA at NYU. One of my professors, Sergio Chejfec, read two of the interviews and said, “It’s just not working; these sound too similar to each other.” And I thought it would be even more interesting to do a fictional anthology that included interviews with real poets.
SG: Did anything surprising emerge from these interviews? Did these “real” poets animate anything unexpected in their fictional counterparts?
EZ: Of course. The ideas I had about these characters were pretty different from what these other people imagined them to be. Most of the biographies are completely made up by the people who I interviewed. I only gave them the names, and to some of them I said, “You work as a screenwriter” or “You live in Canada with your ex-wife.” The scripts were very vague and that was intentional.
I approach poetry as a sort of exercise in not only ventriloquism but in cohabitation. I try to enter a poem every day and see how it’s made from the inside and try to live it.
SG: You’ve fashioned these thirteen new contemporary US poets. I’m wondering what they’re made of and what you’ve made them to be. Are they portraits or analogues of existing poets that you’ve encountered? Are they embodiments of poetic impulses in your own work?
EZ: That’s a good question. I would say, in a way, both. It was also an exercise in trying to write against my own grain, so to speak—doing things I would never do, and trying to do them gracefully. These poets are not parodies; I was trying to own certain styles that appeared in my writing practice.
The poet 8A, Ochoa, I tried to make him into a sort of Chicano Ashbery. A friend of mine, Hernán Bravo Varela, said to me, “You should have a Latino poet, but he should be the most unlikely Latino poet of them all—he should be like a Chicano John Ashbery,” so I said, “Ok, I’ll do that.”
It’s similar to how I translate poetry every day. I approach poetry as a sort of exercise in not only ventriloquism but in cohabitation. I try to enter a poem every day and see how it’s made from the inside and try to live it. I believe there are no originals. Poems are forms that exist autonomously. The writer is already a translator.
SG: Do you see the book as a kind of a treatise on translation?
EZ: Yeah. It’s also a treatise on being translated, in a way. I think that “the self” is a very interesting construct in that respect. When I first arrived in the States, I felt like I myself had been translated. There’s a play by Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
SG: One of my favorites.
EZ: Well you know that character who has his head transformed into a donkey?
SG: Yes, Nick Bottom.
EZ: And do you remember the words that are being said as he is being transformed? “Thou art translated.” I was a pretty articulate person in Spanish, in Argentina, and although I’m pretty fluent in writing in English, my whole persona was translated when I arrived here. And now I feel like I walk around with a donkey head.
SG: Is there something liberating about writing—
EZ: There is nothing liberating about writing.
SG: Is there something that’s slightly less oppressive in writing from someone else’s voice, in someone else’s name?
EZ: In a way, yes, but it’s also a big responsibility. When it’s my own name, I can be a bad writer and own it. But when you are borrowing someone else’s name and voice, even if they are a character, there’s a responsibility that comes with that.
SG: How has your understanding of contemporary US poetry changed over time? How does that play out over the course of the novel?
EZ: Well, Joe Urbach, I think he’s the second author I created. At first, I thought American poetry was like his work—mostly narrative, very matter-of-fact, presenting a scene that is made to stand as a symbol of something larger and transcendent. But when I came here, I quickly noticed that that wasn’t the case at all. I actually found that experimentalism was much bigger than those sentimental pieces with a turn at the end. The last poet in the book is experimental. He composes a long poem using only words from the Declaration of Independence.
I’ve been perceived as a translator for most of my career, so this book is a way of embracing that but also playing with it.
SG: In the introduction you include a backstory that you’ve been unable to write poetry and thus have begun translating. Does it happen that way for you?
EZ: Yes. I hope that my job as a relentless translator, translating a poem a day, works out in the end as a kind of subliminal advertisement for my own work as a poet. This is a very long con. I’ve been perceived as a translator for most of my career, so this book is a way of embracing that but also playing with it.
SG: You’ve dedicated 50 Estados to Robin Myers, with whom you have a reciprocal translator-poet relationship. Can you talk about your collaboration with her?
EZ: I met Robin back in 2008. I was invited by Swarthmore to teach at their study abroad program in Buenos Aires. Robin was this twenty-one-year-old student and her translations were very free in a way that I did not encourage, and I think she was a bit frustrated with that. Before the end of the course, she gave me this blue binder with poems, and I took them home and I made myself a cup of coffee and I started reading and I couldn’t stop. I was crying, and I quickly realized that this person was a much better poet than I was, and that I needed to translate her. Now she has two books already published in bilingual editions in Mexico, Spain, and Argentina. She has a huge following but still she’s unpublished in the States. It’s crazy.
SG: She recently translated your book Lyric Poetry Is Dead into English for Cardboard House Press. Can you talk about the project and how it unfolded?
EZ: The backstory to this book is that in the ’90s there was a huge anthology of contemporary Argentine poets called Monstruos. And one of the poets, Alejandro Rubio, famously declared that lyric poetry was dead. And a few people from the younger generation—the one that I belong to—were really annoyed by this idea of the death of lyric poetry. It’s a classic neoliberal myth—like the death of politics. So I said, “Ok, I’ll write a book about the death of poetry. I’ll prove that poetry is indeed dead, but precisely because it cannot die. Because it can’t stop living, even if you killed it.”
So in the book there’s a poem called “Death of Orpheus” that’s actually a translation from Ovid. The head of Orpheus is severed and it continues to sing down the river. And the lyre, with no hand to strum it, still sings. In a way, it’s a pantheon, a mausoleum of famous corpses in Latin American literature and in “World Literature” (that’s a very American term).
SG: What source material did you use for Lyric Poetry Is Dead? You mentioned Ovid, and there are some biblical verses in there, as well, which you reference in your endnotes.
EZ: The book is organized chronologically, from the present to the past. There are some biblical sources, but there are also a lot of archival sources. The Argentinean version was published without the endnotes because I think most people could grasp the historical characters. But when the book was published in Chile in 2017, I thought it was a good idea to include the references. No one knows who Alfredo Yabrán is, for example.
SG: Or the embalmer of Eva Peron.
EZ: For that poem, “Dr. Pedro Ara,” the only thing I did was scan in iambic pentameter a passage from a book called El caso Eva Peron by the embalmer, Dr. Pedro Ara. For the poem on Che Guevara, I also used sources about his autopsy, his death, his own journals.
I really believe that poetry is a huge mosaic of poems, not poets.
SG: I want to borrow one of the questions you ask your interviewees: who are some of your favorite young poets right now?
EZ: It’s a question that I actually hate but I like asking other people. I think what I’m most firmly against is the ranking mentality, of “the best poet.” I really believe that poetry is a huge mosaic of poems, not poets. Even the poet I love the most—Cesar Vallejo—not everything he wrote was great. But then there’s an American poet, a lesser-known poet. He’s written poetry that is mostly unremarkable, but he wrote this one poem that is really wonderful. Why focus on the author? Why fixate on this idea of an authorial subjectivity that radiates talent and wonderfulness? We are all people who are struggling to create things.
I do think there’s a lot of great work coming out of the US right now, though I think one of the most exciting poets right now is not American but Canadian. She is at the same time very old and very young, Anne Carson. I really like Ben Lerner’s work, which I’ve translated. I’ve also been very impressed with Terrance Hayes. I think American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin was the book of the year—the book that best captures the Trump era. I like the way Hayes and Lerner play with fixed forms to talk about a political moment that feels claustrophobic. I love Ocean Vuong’s book as well.
The last book I read and really loved from Argentina was Daniel Lipara’s Otra Vida. It’s also an autobiography in voices. Lipara borrows a lot from Alice Oswald, from her book Memorial. He uses epithets for people who are very pedestrian, very middle class, people from the barrio in Argentina, to narrate a trip he made to Sai Baba Ashram in India with his sick mother.
SG: Is there a particular poem that has stuck with you most recently?
EZ: There are poems for many different occasions. There are poems that will stay with me for a long time—for example, Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Or D. A. Powell, this American poet, wrote one poem called “Chronic” and lately I’ve come back to it, because my mother was diagnosed with a chronic type of leukemia. So the poem, which I’ve always liked, acquired a new meaning. They come and go.
SG: What are some of your hopes for lyric poetry before its next death?
EZ: I think she doesn’t need our hope. She will do just fine without us. I hope she continues to let me in once in a while.
Ezequiel Zaidenwerg was born in Buenos Aires in 1981. His books include Doxa (poetry, Vox, 2007); La lírica está muerta (poetry, Vox, 2011, and Cástor y Pólux, 2017); Lyric Poetry is Dead (poetry, tr. Robin Myers, Cardboard House Press, 2018); Sinsentidos comunes (Spanish language limericks illustrated by Raquel Cané, Bajo la luna, 2015); Bichos: Sonetos y comentarios (sonnets with free-verse responses by Mirta Rosenberg and drawings by Valentina Rebasa and Miguel Balaguer); and 50 estados: 13 poetas contemporáneos de Estados Unidos (poetry/novel, Bajo la luna, 2018). He has translated Anne Carson, Mark Strand, Denise Levertov, Ben Lerner, Mary Ruefle, Weldon Kees, Kay Ryan, and Joseph Brodsky, among others. He is the editor of Penúltimos, an anthology of contemporary Argentinian poetry for UNAM (2014). Since 2005, he has run zaidenwerg.com, where he daily uploads his poetry translations.