For the past two years, Khairani Barokka and I have had the pleasure of serving, with Daljit Nagra, on the jury of the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation. We have read thousands of poems translated primarily by students from world languages into English. (On November 15, the winners will read their works online in the virtual prize ceremony.) During this period Okka became the editor in chief of Modern Poetry in Translation, a role she has described as her dream job. We recently spoke about her plans for the venerable publication’s future.
Samantha Schnee (SS): Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort founded Modern Poetry in Translation fifty-seven years ago to get poetry out from behind the Iron Curtain. Today it seems there is a different, perhaps no less impenetrable curtain that prevents poets around the world from being published and finding readers in English. If you were to name this curtain, what would you call it? And how do you see your role as the new editor of MPT carrying on in this tradition?
Khairani Barokka (KB): Firstly, thank you kindly for giving us the space to discuss MPT here. It’s a very encouraging feeling to know we are all in this together, as various publications dedicated to literature in translation.
One thing I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about and observing over the years, in the footsteps of and alongside a plethora of other writers, is where there is a lack of awareness of positionality and power dynamics within literary ecosystems. People are publishing in English all over the world, as it is a globalizing force—with all the complications that brings with it—including in countries like Singapore and Nigeria, where English is an official language and exists in localized social hierarchies with other languages. Yet the concept of “the Anglophone sphere” is so heavily dominated by Western forces, paradigms, and generalizations. Translation practices and tastes are still being bent toward what Anton Hur calls “the mythical English reader.” This generally UK-US-centric attitude does not take into account all the brilliant ways translators of color, in particular, or translators of the majority world, if you will, work with and live with language, while we still face inequalities in the literary arts. The curtain, if you will, is coloniality, which we’re all enmeshed with to varying degrees. That curtain has been there for hundreds of years.
I come to MPT with an outsider-insider perspective, in many ways. I see how discriminatory literary power structures are perceived by historically stolen-from communities; in any small way I can, I would like to shift imbalances and highlight undervalued and essential perspectives. Also, to try to be aware of my own positionality, which is the difficult and necessary work of us all. It’s a continuation of work that has always been done by literary communities, activists, and publications over the years, in localities the world over—including by many people associated with MPT.
SS: You were MPT’s first Poet in Residence and guest edited the Spring issue earlier this year. Can you tell us a bit about those experiences? How do they relate to your assuming editorial leadership with this fall’s issue?
KB: I applied to be the new MPT editor when the job was advertised and went through the rigorous process of putting together an application, followed by multiple interviews and presentations once I’d advanced to the shortlist. I didn’t dare dream I’d get the job, and felt inordinate joy when I got the call letting me know a lifelong obsession with translated poetry would allow me to do this work.
With both the residency, in 2019, and co-editing the Bodies issue with the excellent Jamie Hale, what I found so welcoming was the freedom that was given to, for instance, highlight indigenous Mollo children’s poetry and orientalist attitudes in translation through residency work, or for us to introduce translations from different sign languages and image descriptions with the Bodies issue. So it feels good to be able to institutionalize certain accessibility measures, and curate the magazine in different ways, with the knowledge that I am supported in doing new things by a very hardworking, creative team.
SS: What are your goals for your editorship? Are there elements of MPT as it exists today, such as workshops, that you’d like to preserve? What would you like to change?
KB: My goals are to be an editor with whom everyone I work has a positive experience, to be present for mutual enrichment, and to foreground perspectives I feel are important and underappreciated, in the UK and more broadly in poetry translation ecosystems.
It must be said that it is such a relief to be able to slip into so much of the magazine’s format, style, and initiatives that my dedicated predecessors have set up previously—whether our current collaboration with Young Poets Network or typeface decisions. With such a solid basis, I’m gradually introducing changes that reflect my own perspective as a translator and writer who is also an Indonesian migrant and a chronically ill/disabled woman.
For instance, there’s our new Language Justice column in each issue, to contextualize language in all-important ethical conversations I feel are happening all the time around poetry translation, and that the magazine can acknowledge and contribute to. We are now prominently listing the language each poem is translated from. Instead of naming issues by UK-centric seasons, each issue will be named by the month it’s published in. The way contributors are listed at the back is no longer by assumed-surname, but by the first letter of their names—as someone without a (usually patronymic) surname, I feel strongly about acknowledging the thousands of different ways names are structured in the world. Watch out for various other little ways the mag is changing, while retaining that aforementioned solid basis . . .
SS: The November issue features poetry on food and makes a point of including work by deaf and/or disabled translators and poets. Can you give us a sneak peek at the issue?
KB: I’ll give you three small peeks, in addition to the changes above. A poem describing food so mouth-watering, a ruler demanded a real banquet be created based on it—and an essay elaborating on the delectable menu. A wee Lorca gem. And last but not least, a first foray into poetry by a luminary writer-translator with fascinating perspectives on the process, who we’ll be interviewing on our podcast.
There is much poetry here about the pleasure of food, which certainly made me very hungry reading it! However, we are also very conscious about publishing a food issue during a cost-of-living crisis in the UK, where we MPT staff live, and there are poems here about hunger, colonial capitalism’s hold on agriculture, and the impact of climate change; we see this issue as both celebratory and attuned to what is going on around us.
SS: How do you select books for review? And how do you select the work that MPT publishes on the website?
KB: I try to have a finger on the pulse of recent and upcoming translated poetry book releases—reading as widely as possible, and some healthy lurking online helps—and ultimately, it will be about curiosity and excitement. If I’m curious and excited about a book, if it introduces a new approach to a topic, or just seems singular in a certain way, important to the current landscape, I’ll want it reviewed. The other part of the equation is keeping an eye out for people whose knowledge base would create the richest possible review for a certain book. We’re trying to make sure we include a healthy variance, linguistically and thematically.
We do both digital and print reviews, and continue to highlight a selection of the work from each print issue online. We are always interested in spotlighting on the website work that starts a conversation, that is varied geographically, that we regard as excellent representatives of other superlative pieces by poets in the print mag.
SS: Of all the pages on the MPT site, I particularly loved “Resources for Teachers.” As editor, do you have plans to further broaden the audience for poetry MPT publishes?
KB: Thank you, and absolutely. We want many more people to fall in love with poetry in translation, and part of that is supporting and promoting the work of even more poets, poetry translators, students, and educators, widening the field organically. It’s about showing how poetry in translation is intertwined with innumerable parts of society, and can create resonances and collaborations that are precious, that last, that matter.
Khairani Barokka is a translator, editor, writer, and artist from Jakarta with over two decades of professional translation experience. Okka’s work has been presented widely internationally, and centers disability justice as anticolonial praxis, and access as translation. Among her honors, she has been Modern Poetry in Translation’s inaugural Poet in Residence, a UNFPA Indonesian Young Leader Driving Social Change, an Artforum Must-See, and Associate Artist at the UK’s National Centre for Writing. Okka’s books include Indigenous Species, Rope, and Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (as co-editor). Her latest is Ultimatum Orangutan, shortlisted for the Barbellion Prize.
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