Poetry Mini Interviews
by Thomas Whyte with Stephen Page:
An Interview with
by Stephen Page
Esther Cross was born in Buenos Aires in 1961. She is the author of four novels, The Chronic Winged Apprentices (Emecé, 1992), The Flood (Emecé 1993), Banquet of the Spider (Tusquets, 1999), and Radiana (Emecé 2007); and the author of two collections of short stories, Divine Proportion (Emecé, 1994) and Kavanagh (Tusquets, 2005). She co-authored along with Felix della Paolera two books of interviews, Bioy Casares at the time of Writing (Tusquets, 1987) and Conversations with Borges (Editorial Fuentetaja, 2007). In 2002 she released The Insulted and the Injured, a documentary film that she co-wrote, co-directed, and co-produced with Alicia Martínez Pardíes. She has translated Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (Emecé, 2001) and William Goyen’s The Faces of Blood Kindred and Other Stories (Editorial La Compañía, 2008). She has been awarded a Fulbright and a Civitella Ranieri scholarship. She teaches writing in Casa de Letras, Buenos Aires, and for Fuentetaja, of Spain. She is published regularly in several culture magazines and supplements.
Sp: What started you translating?
EC: I read Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, and was overwhelmed by it. I fell in love with the way he wrote, which is directly, sparingly—yet richly at the same time. Also, something Yates said in one of his stories, “Builders,” about using words honestly. That’s how Yates writes, he uses words honestly. I did some research and found that Eleven Kinds of Loneliness had not been translated into Spanish. I immediately decided I wanted to bring the book to the Spanish-reading world.
Sp: Who are some of your favorite Argentine translators?
EC: Enrique Pezzoni, who brought us Moby Dick. Borges, who made some great translations despite that quite often, his style is prominent. Félix della Paolera, who translated Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood. Rodolfo Walsh, Cortázar—among others.
Sp: Do you enjoy translating?
EC: Oh, I love it. It has increased my understanding of how language works. Also, it has increased my understanding of the two languages I work with—first of all, it has made me realize that I know more English than I thought I did, and second, it has made me realize that I know less Spanish than I thought I did (she chuckles). When I come to a sentence and it takes me three or four days to translate it, and all of a sudden I get it right—find the right words and the right word order—it is a rush. Mostly, I just love bringing great texts to people that language would normally keep apart.
Sp: Tell me about your translation processes. How do you go from concept to completed product?
EC: When I decide which book I want to translate, I read it from beginning to end to capture a general sense of it. Then I read it again to capture the rhythm of the words, the voice of the narrator, the writer’s style. Then I sit down and do a first draft of the translation, not worrying about getting it right word-for-word, but trying to capture the rhythm, the voice, the style. Then I go through my first draft, polish the details, make sure word choice is correct, that phrases make sense, that I am getting all that is needed to make an honest translation.
Sp: About the “voice” of the narrator or writer. Is that difficult to translate sometimes, even if you hear it clearly in the original language?
EC: Yes. But it is also what I enjoy about being a translator. I think that is the key between a good translation and a great translation—capturing the voice.
Sp: Is it difficult to get the rhythm of the words?
EC: Of course, because Spanish and English are very different languages. English is more plastic than Spanish, more pliable. Spanish is more rigid. Often, In Spanish, you need two or three words for one word in English, so sometimes you will write a very long sentence, whereas the original writer wrote the sentence economically.
Sp: And what do you do when you come to sentence or phrase where you just cannot capture the proper rhythm?
EC: I never give up. With Goyen it was not easy, because he has a talking quality, derived from the oral tradition. In interviews he speaks about the breath of the sentence. His fiction reads like someone is sitting down and telling you the story. Once I was able to “hear” his voice, it was a lot easier.
Sp: Now that we are talking about Goyen, what attracted you to him and his writing?
EC: His uniqueness. His powerful story telling. He has a quality that is similar to Faulkner, but of course he is not Faulkner at all. Many people call Faulkner’s style Southern Gothic. I like to call Goyen’s style Texan Gothic. It may be related to Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers—but his landscape is Texas. What makes Goyen’s stories impressionable is their orality, their musicality, and their subject matter. He said that he was inspired by his mother’s voice, the way she talked, how she almost sang when she spoke. Goyen also loved music—which his father did not like because he thought it was effeminate, and he forbad Goyen from playing the piano—so Goyen’s mother bought him one of those mail-order music courses, and he made a cardboard keyboard and sat under his covers at night and played music silently. His music playing, and as was later, his writing, had to be done in secret from his father. He was literally an undercover musician and writer. Sometimes, at night, he would pretend he was asleep and play his cardboard piano while he listened to his family talk in the living room—stories about sawmill workers, woodsmen, farmers, ranchers, out-of-work small-town people, the Ku Klux Klan. When he was older and started to write, he wrote those voices he heard while he was playing music.
Sp: Which of the two was most challenging to translate—Goyen or Yates?
EC: Yates. Because he is grammatically precise. Goyen is poetic, freer, looser.
SP: The stories you selected for La Misma Sangre are not solely from Faces of Blood Kindred, but are from a number of Goyen’s books. What were the factors in your selection process?
EC: I found that most of his stories fell into two groups—urban and rural. I chose the rural stories.
Sp: Goyen has been described as being drawn to the grotesque. Do you agree?
EC: I do. He often said he worked with the grotesque. He compared himself to the photographer Diane Arbus. He said he was not fond of the abnormalities in people, but that they drew him, and made him want to write about them, write about people who lived on the peripheries of society—like the bearded woman in his story “Zamour, or a Tale of Inheritance.”
Sp: In Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, what does Richard Yates say about modern society?
EC: His stories can be read as bleak, but I think he was trying to show truth, the dark side of the Golden Era in the United States—the Cold War, the façade of the perfect job and the perfect family, the failure of the American Dream. Yates showed the loneliness of those Americans—mostly young married couples—who bought the American Dream and found themselves in dead-end jobs, in debt, and with an awareness of the phoniness of dressing-for-success. Jean Améry once said that our biographies are not only formed by what we did but also by what we would have wanted to do. I think that Yates explored that gap, between who people are and who they had once wished to be.
Sp: Was Yates misanthropic, or kind to people?
EC: He was kind. He understood people. Most great writers understand people. Though he was pessimistic about the way the world works, he was very tender in his portrayal of the people involved in the world.
Sp: When you translate, in general, do you feel you translate into Argentine Spanish, Latin-American Spanish, or Spaniard Spanish?
EC: If it comes down to a choice, I choose Argentine Spanish, especially if I am being published here in Argentina. If I am translating for a publisher is Spain, of course, I use Spaniard Spanish. Overall, though, I try to think I translate into the language of translation.
Sp: So, when you are translating, do you feel you are copying something, or re-creating something?
EC: Re-creating. I try to be loyal to the original work. I know I can never copy something exactly, especially with language. I try to capture the spirit of the book. You have to re-create and not copy in order to respect another person’s work. If I may draw a parallel, it is like restoring a painting. In restoration, when the restorer fills in an absent part of the painting, or re-creates a part that was damaged, he performs what is known as tratation. If you look at the painting from a normal viewing distance, you see it complete. If you move closer, put your face right up to the painting, you will notice the restoration because the restorer worked with very thin lines. The restorer did that on purpose. She is telling you, “I am restoring the original painting, but I am not the original painter.” As a translator, I know I will never be able to reproduce the writer’s writing. I will try to get as near to it as I can, but I will not copy the writing. That would be too difficult.
Sp: Does that mean you feel a translator’s presence should be somewhere in a translation?
EC: No. Those lines I spoke about are not the translator’s presence, but the translator’s respect. The lines are there, but not the translator.
SP: You chose to translate two North American authors. Is there any particular reason for that?
EC: I guess that it has to do with my admiration for North American writing. I believe that the 20th Century narrative was what it was because of North American writers—not only, but mostly. I also feel there is a wonderful lack of solemnity in North American English that makes it playful. North Americans use the English language with a freedom and familiarity that is wonderful.
Sp: Do you find translating language of one culture into language of another culture difficult?
EC: Yes. Without a doubt. Because language is derived from culture and culture from language.
SP: Do you think, then, that translations promote cultural understanding?
EC: Yes, for the reader and translator. Unfortunately, from a political point of view, “cultural understanding” is a misleading term. For the book industry, anyway, translation is a means of cultural appropriation.
Sp: What do you do when you come to a word or phrase or a scene that does not make sense in your culture?
EC: I always try to stay true to the original. There are some exceptions, especially in word-choice, but the scenes must remain in the same order for the reader to understand the situation.
Sp: What about metaphors, similes, and double meanings. How do you deal with them?
EC: You have to give up something sometimes when dealing with figurative language. It’s inevitable. You strive to make it best as possible. Changing a word is hard, but not impossible. Sometimes you can find a similar figure of speech—just as long as you don’t change meaning. Sometimes when you are meticulously reading a text you will find figurative language that the author did not intend. Usually that happens with the genius writers. Their unconscious minds at work. If you try to reproduce any of that, it is kind of like trying to show the submerged part of an iceberg. You can attempt to show as much of it as you are able, but you will never be able to show it all. That would be too ambitious. There is just too much mass there. Lifting the iceberg out of the water would change the aesthetics of the tip.
Sp: What about story titles? Do you often have to change them to make meaning?
EC: Quite often, but not always. This is because titles are an introduction to the story, or an overall interpretation of the text. If that introduction or interpretation does not make sense in the culture of the translated language, a change must be made—something representative.
Sp: Do you feel there are a lot of great books and authors that have not been translated into Spanish?
EC: Yes I do. The main reason is marketability. Another reason is fashion. Basically, books that are being translated today are successful books. For contemporary books, that means bestsellers. For an older text, someone must classify it as a classic—which doesn’t necessarily mean it was a best seller when it was first written. If a good book does not become a best seller, or a classic, then the likelihood of it being translated is slim. Some great writers and great books are never discovered in other cultures.
Sp: Do you take a long time getting to know the author you are translating?
EC: Yes. (She holds up a two-inch thick book that she has held in her lap during our conversation, a biography about John Fante). I would like to translate his letters and that is why I am reading his biography. I always research the author.
Sp: Why do you feel it is important to get to know the author?
EC: If I know the author, I know how his mind works. If I know how his mind works, I know how he uses language.
SP: When you are working on a translation, how do you work…do you focus solely on the translation, or are you able to juggle other things, like your own writing?
EC: I would prefer to work solely on the translation. Keep my mind focused only on that. Sometimes though, I have to work on two projects and it works out. It’s difficult, but it can be done if it is necessary. You have to have a lot of faith in yourself if you want to work on your own writing while you are translating a genius.
Sp: Then, do you feel that your own writings and your translations compliment one other, or contradict one other?
EC: I think they complement one another, like all your lifetime writings do. They are linked. They are united. From each translation I make, I learn something. When I go back to my own writing I feel I have changed, I feel I am a better writer.
Sp: What kind of advice would you give to writers about to embark on their first translation project?
EC: A translation will never be perfect; you just have to get it as close as possible. The closer you get it, the better the translation is. Have tenacity. Never give up, even if it feels like it is not working. Have a very good dual-language dictionary, and read all you can about the author.
Sp: As a final word, then, what is the major role of a translator?
EC: To introduce the reader to the writer, then step back, and disappear.
An international publication dedicated to all arts and cultures
Stephen Page Contributor
Interview with Argentinian author Esther Cross
Esther Cross was born in Buenos Aires in 1961. She is the author of four novels, The Chronic Winged Apprentices (Emecé, 1992), The Flood (Emecé 1993), Banquet of the Spider (Tusquets, 1999), and Radiana (Emecé 2007); and the author of two collections of short stories, Divine Proportion (Emecé, 1994) and Kavanagh (Tusquets, 2005). She co-authored along with Felix della Paolera two books of interviews, Bioy Casares at the time of Writing (Tusquets, 1987) and Conversations with Borges (Editorial Fuentetaja, 2007). In 2002 she released The Insulted and the Injured, a documentary film that she co-wrote, co-directed, and co-produced with Alicia Martínez Pardíes. She has translated Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (Emecé, 2001) and William Goyen’s The Faces of Blood Kindred and Other Stories (Editorial La Compañía, 2008). She has been awarded a Fulbright and a Civitella. She teaches writing in Casa de Letras, Buenos Aires, and for Fuentetaja, of Spain. She is published regularly in several culture magazines and supplements.
An Interview with
by Stephen Page
SP: What was it like growing up in Buenos Aires?
EC: It was quiet, then. Peaceful. Full of parks. I knew everyone in the neighborhood, maybe not personally, but at least by face—and they knew me. Everyone knew everyone. You could go for a walk and see someone on the street and say hello or nod your head and they would recognize you. The feeling everywhere was genial. Many of the people I know now are the same people I knew when I was a child.
SP: And your family?
EC: I remember playing with my two brothers—going to the cinema, playing in the park, sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car while driving out to the family ranch, near La Pampa (a province in the Pampas, the plains belt of Argentina). We vacationed on the ranch, spent part of our summers there. We rode horses together, we played in the woods, we followed the gauchos around. The ranch was a whole world for us, a world very different than Buenos Aires. We were independent on the ranch. We were let loose to do whatever we wanted. Our parents did one thing and we did the other. Our ranch house was huge—or so it seemed when I was a child—lots of rooms, so we could explore and play inside for hours and never see our parents. We only saw our parents at meal times.
SP: When did you first conceive you would be a writer?
EC: As soon as I read my first book. I remember reading Perrault´s stories and thinking of a different ending or a new character. I also loved other stories I read by Anderson and the Grimm brothers—and I felt that I wanted to be able to do the same thing those writers did. Immediately after I started reading those stories, around age six, I started writing my own stories, in child penmanship, of course. I folded the stories into little booklets and tried to sell them to my neighbors.
SP: Was there anyone in your family that affected you to read and write?
EC: My father. He was a literature teacher. I lived in a house with a huge library. My father was always talking about books, and his friends were always talking about books. He encouraged me to read all the time. Although I had been writing as a child and as a teen, it wasn’t until I was 17 that I chose writing as a profession. When I decided that, I told my father. He immediately stepped outside the house, “to go for a walk,” he said, and came back a little while later with a present for me—Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
SP: Have you written fiction all of your life?
EC: No. When I was a teenager, I released my adolescent angst through poetry. As soon as I was a young adult, I started writing short stories again.
SP: A lot of fiction writers wrote poetry in their early career, Paul Auster, for example, and William Goyen. Do you think there is a reason for that?
EC: Yes, I think when you are young or when you first start to write, you imitate what you have read. I read a lot of short stories, but I read a lot of verse too. Poetry is a precursor to almost all literature, culturally speaking. It is definitely literature in the oldest sense. I choose to write prose because that is most innate for me. I would love to write good poetry but I can’t. Poetry is very special. You either have the talent for it or you don’t. I don’t have it.
SP: Which other writers influenced you when you were young?
EC: Jonathan Swift. Lewis Carroll. Charlotte Brönte. Mary Shelley. Oscar Wilde. Stevenson. Kipling. As I got older, Argentine writers. Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo—who was Casares’s wife . . . they lived just two blocks away from where I was born and raised. I used to see them shopping for groceries and vegetables—and I knew them, in the neighborhood way. Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, Sarmiento, Alejandra Pizarnik, and many, many other Argentine writers. Let’s see, after that, Virginia Woolf. I like her novels, but I prefer her essays. I like the way her mind works. How she thought literature should work—that reading and writing are connected. Then, Proust, Poe, Maupassant, Balzac, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky.
SP: You have a daughter. Tell us about her.
EC: She’s fourteen now. Very dynamic. Strong willed. She knows who she is and what she likes. She loves animals. She likes riding horses. She is an equestrian. She competes a lot. Sometimes every weekend. I like that she likes riding, but it makes me nervous sometimes—her on that big horse. She spends the whole weekend with her friends and the horses, and when they are not riding they are taking care of the horses, feeding them, brushing them, washing them. She just loves to be with animals. All her life. Since she was a little girl. Dogs. Cats. If it were up to her, our house would be a zoo. At school she does very well in literature, but she doesn’t love it, or have a passion for it. She likes history a lot. And she hates math.
SP: Does she support your writing time?
EC: Well, when she was very little, she knew that I was doing something at my desk, but it took her some time to understand that I was working, that writing was working, even though I was at home. She was a bit noisy, demanding attention, but I understood that is normal for a child. Now she is used to the fact that I am a writer. She accepts and permits my writing time.
SP: Does she inspire you to write?
EC: Yes. It’s amazing. I never plan it. It just happens. Talking with her sometimes sparks ideas. The things she says, the way she says them. Motherhood changes your life, radically—as do all the important things in life—it turns you into something else. It makes you realize there is more than the self. I want to write about motherhood sometimes, the relationship between a mother and her daughter, but I need a little time for that. Right now I am still inside the motherhood situation. I write better about something when I have a little distance from it. Perhaps when she is older. When I am older, which is not too far from now, ha?
SP: You recently wrote a novel in three months. How did that go? Where you happy with the results?
EC: I was very happy. It came after almost a year of block. I had been writing, but only commissioned work—short pieces for magazines and such. I was relieved when it came out so quickly and so well. I think it had been burgeoning inside of me for a while, growing; it just had to find a time to come out. That one-year block was the first time in my writing career that I had not been writing what I wanted to write. When I finally started the book, it was three months of writing non-stop.
SP: Do you have a theory on why you had the block?
EC: Not exactly, but I think it might have been because the novel I had written before, Radiana, I had written obsessively. I don’t usually write obsessively. Radiana is a short novel, with lots of small parts and characters intertwined, and I started out with the idea that I wanted all the parts to connect, so when you read it and get to the end, you will understand the beginning and find meaning in the whole. I was obsessive in that I was making too many changes as I was writing. I usually don’t write that way. I do make a lot of corrections, but usually only after I complete a first draft, when I revise. This obsessive behavior was intense. It left me exhausted.
SP: In general, besides that particular book, do you write quickly, or do you labor over words as you write?
EC: It’s ironic, because my novels usually come out quickly, and then I go back and spend a lot of time making corrections, but my short stories come out slowly. In a short story, every sentence has an important job, and each sentence has to follow the previous one, so if you write a weak sentence, it is hard to follow it with a strong sentence. The story just does not progress as it should.
SP: Where do your ideas for your books and stories come from?
EC: Life, in general. Things that happen to me. Things I see. Conversations I hear. Things people say to me. Lately, it has been in dreams. The last four or five short stories I wrote came to me in dreams.
SP: The stories complete from beginning to end?
EC: Not complete, but in bits and parts, and in instructions. For example, for some days I had wanted to write a story about the countryside, about when I was young and vacationed on the ranch. I wrote a couple of stories, and started another, but I didn’t like what I was writing. The stories were not coming out well. Then, one night, I dreamed I was answering the telephone, and when I picked up the receiver I heard my father’s voice, and he said, “Cross!” he called me by my surname, “Cross,” he said, “you have to go out and take the dog for a walk.” So I woke up and I told my husband about the dream. And my husband said, “Well, you have to take the dog for a walk then.”
SP: So you did.
EC: And I did. But nothing happened. I almost forgot about the dream, and late that same afternoon, I was sitting at my desk, and I remembered an event with my father and his dog. I wrote a story about the event.
SP: Do you feel you have a muse?
EC: No. I would love to, but I don’t.
SP: Do you have a favorite place to write?
EC: Yes. My study, and in cafés. I go to a café with my computer, I find a table near a wall, and I sit with my back to a wall, and I start to write. If the bar is not to noisy I can get a lot of writing done. Sometimes I can write in a noisy bar, if the energy is right.
SP: Are there are a lot of bars with creative energies here in Buenos Aires?
EC: Yes. There is a whole culture of café writing here. It goes back over a century. There is also a history of café readers. In any café you go to, you will see people reading books as well as people writing. That might not sound unique to some people, but, the beautiful thing about it, the helping factor for readers and writers, the cultural difference, I think, is that here in Buenos Aires you can sit down and order a cup of coffee and you can remain in your seat for an hour or two, or even longer, and the waiter or waitress does not bother you or rush you. You are free to write or read until you are tired.
SP: How many hours do you usually write every day?
EC: I sit down at my computer for at least four hours. During that time I either write, or do writing-related work—such as note-taking, revising, editing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I just sit there, and it doesn’t work. Most of the time, though, if I am tenacious, something happens.
SP: Do you write best in the mornings, afternoons, evenings, or nights?
EC: Mornings, mostly. Sometimes a bit after lunch, if I have time. And I like writing at night. After I have helped my daughter with her homework, if I can, I write a little at night. Writing at night has its advantages. It’s quiet. There are fewer interruptions. Only problem is, I like waking up early, so I have to balance that.
SP: Do you find yourself conceiving stories at odd times, perhaps while driving, or talking to somebody, or while you are teaching? What do you do, if an idea comes to you at an inconvenient time?
EC: I have a good memory.
SP: How do you write a first draft—do you write it in long hand, on a typewriter, or on a computer?
EC: On a computer. I have terrible handwriting.
SP: Do you proofread your own final drafts?
EC: I have some friends, who are all great readers, take a look at my final drafts. I give them the novel or book, and they read it and write comments for me. I love them because they are honest. They tell me if a scene is boring, or if a character is unbelievable, or if a section is paced too slowly. I read all of their comments, listen to what they tell me, then I reread my manuscript, and if what they said makes sense, I make the changes.
SP: Talk a little about your book Kavanagh. What does the building Kavanagh symbolize?
EC: The Kavanagh building is the first and only Art Deco skyscraper built in Buenos Aires, a brilliant piece of architecture. The characters in Kavanagh are rich people who find themselves no-longer rich, and they are resistant to that change. They don’t want to lower their standards of living. They are living in denial, and they are decaying. They try to keep their standards of living up, because to them that symbolizes their dignity. Their resistance to change creates conflict, and this conflict inevitably leads to the climax of each story. The characters in the stories represent different types of people in Buenos Aires. The Kavanagh building houses these people, thus, the Kavanagh building becomes emblematic of the city Buenos Aires.
I think these types of situations, though tragic, make interesting fiction—people going through disaster, sorrow, and change—and the resulting actions that they take. Sympathy must be given when writing about these people, and dignity must be given, even if a few characters are not perfect or even good hearted.
SP: Kavanagh is a collection of short stories, but it works like a novel. The narrator’s voice is quite evident throughout the collection. Was that arbitrary, or your plan?
EC: When I first started writing those stories, I did not know they would be so connected, but after I finished the third story, I realized I had a connecting narrator voice.
SP: Going back to your book Radiana, who or what does the woman/robot protagonist represent?
EC: Well, I think she is what the inventor, a man, would like a woman to be.
SP: Is there a sexist statement in that?
EC: Of course. Because he makes an artificial woman. But, the story is much more than that. The inventor ends up getting what he sought.
SP: And Banquet of the Spider? What is the plot of the story?
EC: Well, without giving away too much, it is the story of a girl, Celina, whose socialization is very unique. In her family, in order to be respected, one must rob or deface a famous art masterpiece. Her ancestors are culprits of infamous crimes: the beheading of the statue The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen; the stealing of La Giaconda from the Louvre; striking Le Genie du Repos Eternelle and Michelangelo’s La Pietá with hammers. She thinks that if she wants her family to respect her and take pride in her, she must do something similar.
SP: Have you found any of your characters from earlier books reappearing in later books?
EC: No, in my books, I am always moving to another place, meeting new characters—especially after I have written something and had it accepted for publication. I have left those characters behind and gone from that place, on my way somewhere else.
SP: What kind of a statement were you making in your movie, The Insulted and the Injured?
EC: It is a social statement on the homeless. After one of our recent president’s government, there were a lot of homeless people wandering about. What was so unusual was that many of these people were former functioning, middle-class citizens who all of a sudden found themselves homeless because of a perverse governing institution. So, along with structural poverty, there was this new group of homeless. The government required that you have an address in order to have an identity card, so if you didn’t have an address, who were you? A new kind of desaparecido (a term for the people who “disappeared” during the military juntas)? Basically, these homeless did not exist—on least on paper. In reality, they existed, and you could see them everywhere. We realized while we were shooting that we were capturing the first symptoms of a societal disease. The infirmity of a system.
SP: As a final word, what would you advise to other writers?
EC: Always give your final drafts to a few people whose opinions you respect—and then take their feedback into consideration.
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Link here: http://luciolepress.com/Stephen_Page.html
Read an Stephen Page interview conducted by g emil reutter and Diane Sahms-Guarnieri at FCR: https://foxchasereview.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/10-questions-for-stephen-page/ Diane Sahms-Guarnieri
Stephen Page is from Detroit, Michigan. He is the author ofThe Timbre of Sand and Still Dandelions. He holds two AA’s from Palomar College, a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from Bennington College. His critical essays have appeared regularly in the Buenos Aires Herald and the Fox Chase Review. He is the recipient of The Jess Cloud Memorial Prize, a Writer-in-Residence from the Montana Artists Refuge, a Full Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, an Imagination Grant from Cleveland State University, and an Arvon Foundation Ltd. Grant. . You can find him at:http://stephenmpage.wordpress.com/. His poetry appears in The Fox Chase Review at these links: http://www.foxchasereview.org/12SU/StephenPage.html and http://www.foxchasereview.org/11WS/StephenPage.html
Interview with g emil reutter
GER: So how does a guy from Detroit end up becoming a cattle rancher in Argentina?
SP: Well, I’m not ranching anymore. I was. Loved it. That part of my life is temporarily over. I will tell you, however, how I came to Argentina. The story started when I was a child. Some of my earliest happy memories are of my family vacations. Several times, all summer long, my family would pile in the station wagon and head out on the road. We would take about twenty short vacations a year. Sometimes just for the weekend. We would head up north in Michigan, or down to Florida, or Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina. Mostly visiting family. I loved the feeling of being on the road. Nothing behind you, only that which is ahead of you—Kerouac said something like that. I loved looking at the scenery as it passed by. Most of my extended family lived in rural or sparsely populated nature-filled areas. I remember farmland, lakes, rivers, large patches of woodlands. I loved walking for miles on dirt roads, along animal trails, trudging through swamps, crossing rivers, swimming across lakes. My parents were good caretakers, and I feel lucky that they gave me such an adventurous childhood. I also had two good-natured sisters who were easy-going travelling companions.
When I was fifteen or so, I ran away from home (not to escape anything in particular, at least nothing I could conceive at that age). I was walking home after visiting a friend’s house and I got this idea in my head to go somewhere, anywhere . . . no definite destination in mind, just go. As the sun was setting I was standing on the side of I-75, watching the smokestacks of factories turn yellow then orange then red, and I stuck out my thumb. I didn’t get very far, only down to Cincinnati, when I realized I was hungry. I crossed the highway divider and hitchhiked back home. I slipped the key into the lock on the front door of my home as the sun was rising.
As a young man, with my driver’s license, every Friday when I had my weekly cash pay stuffed in my pocket, I would jump in my car and drive, sometimes to visit family, sometime just to be “out there.” Away. Gone. Free. Traveling is like having wings, even in a car. I really found my wings when I bought my Harley. Riding a Harley has no other feeling like it in this world. It has a distinct vibration and rumble. On an open road, with no traffic, there is just you, the bike, the wind, and the scenery around you. You have a panoramic view of your surroundings—especially if you ride without a helmet (kids, please don’t do that!).
Once, I had a union job, cutting steel, and after I worked there for one year, the foreman came up to me on a Friday afternoon, and said, “You,” he paused, looking me in the eye, then pointing at me with a greasy finger, “are on vacation.” “What?” I asked, thinking I was fired. “You get a week’s paid vacation for your first year on this job. We need you to take the time now while the work is slow.” “Thanks,” I muttered, thinking ‘where will I go, what will I do?’ That night I fell asleep watching a movie called Easy Rider. I woke up early the next morning and packed a sleeping bag and some clothes in a sea bag my cousin J had given me, threw the bag over my shoulder, and headed out the door. As I was stepping off the front porch, my cousin T (who was sharing rent with me in an old farm house on the edges of Detroit) asked, “where are you going?” “To New Orleans.” “How will you get there?” “I don’t know, I guess I’ll hitchhike (I was in-between owning vehicles at the time) . . . Or maybe I’ll go downtown to the bus terminal and take a bus.” She looked at me and smiled, then said, “At least let me drive you to the station.” So, I ended up hanging out on Bourbon Street for a couple of nights, seeing the Rolling Stones play live, taking a train up to Jackson, Mississippi, then hitchhiking though Arkansas, Texas, north to Colorado, onto North Dakota, then turning east to back towards Detroit. I arrived home Sunday evening, eight and a half days later, just in time to eat dinner, sleep a bit, wake up early the next morning and go back to work. I took a lot of trips like that, either hitchhiking, in my car, or on my bike—I was always travelling, going somewhere, anywhere, just away, on my way to “There. There. Somewhere. Anywhere but here.”
After a few years of factory jobs, 7-11 midnight shifts, gas-station jobs, bowling-alley jobs, landscaping jobs, restaurant jobs—I decided I had to leave the Detroit scene. Get away. Far, far away. I landed a job that allowed me globe-circling travel. Out of seven years in this occupation, I spent fifty-two months overseas. Man, I saw a lot of the world. I ended up one day in Kenya, on a photo safari, and inside the same tour bus I was in was this exotic green-eyed goddess of a women. I noticed that every time I looked at her, she was looking at me, and every time she looked at me, I was looking at her. We fell in love. She was, and is, Argentine. Here I am.
GER: You have said that teaching is a passion of yours. Tell us why and how the interaction with students contributes to your own development as a writer?
SP: I love teaching because it is a way of sharing, sharing knowledge, a way of helping others. The best way teaching literature helped my development as a writer was that I was able to restudy the masters, analyze good writing and show others how to read well. To read carefully. To “read,” not just read. To understand the techniques of literature the masters use and/or used well—i.e. foreshadowing, metaphor, symbolism . . . saying something without saying something.
SP: Most writers write in a room with the door closed, the phone turned off. I do. If a writer has to write in a room with family around, the writer usually has a spouse, family member, friend, or an employee take care of the family while he or she writes. Some writers write in a café. I also do that often. I know a few cafés that have vibrant creative energy and when I sit down at a table and lean over my journal or computer to write, the conversations of the other patrons just become white noise. In a sense, all writing is done in isolation. A writer has to know this, be ready for it, and, in some cases, have a disposition that does not mind being alone with itself for a while. I break out of my bouts of isolation by having an understanding wife, a circle of friends, and an extended family who understand my need to be alone a while and are always there for me when I open my (metaphorical and literal) door to socialize.
SP: My first collection of poems, The Timbre of Sand, was inspired by the exotic green-eyed woman, and started with my first love letters to her, after the safari was over. I wrote those letters while I was still traveling around for my employers and she was living in Argentina. About a year after the safari, I resigned from my travel-required occupation, moved to Argentina, and started to attend college. At university, I realized I loved literature and writing so much I made that my major, and I started to write short stories and poems. Then, one day, I was skimming over some of the early letters I wrote my wife (by then we were living together and shared rings) and I realized the epistolaries had poetic potential. I started a collection of poems dedicated to her, and as I began it I thought, ‘what better love poem is there than a sonnet.’ So I started a collection of sonnets. But being a bit of an originally minded rebellious person, I decided to contemporize the sonnet. I kept the line relations, the stanzas, the meter, the assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme that Shakespearian and Petrarchan sonnets have, but I eliminated the end rhyme (or at least freed my self of having to end rhyme). I had a few of them published separately in small presses, and then a small publisher in NY picked them up and printed them as a book.
My second collection of poems, Still Dandelions, was inspired by my love for nature. Even as a child, on my vacations and short trips with my family, I felt a oneness with nature, a connection to it all, a passageway through nature to the beyond, the Universe, the Everything, the One. I lived in New York for a while and was lucky enough to live near a park that was spread out over hundreds of square acres. It had trails leading through the trees, up and down hills, down to the Hudson. There was a garden in the center of the park that was tended year-round by city employees, so if there was a mild winter, some plant or another was in bloom all year round. If there was a harsh winter, something was in bloom at least ten months of the year. The garden attracted bees, other insects, birds. And the woodland always had some miracle of life happening, even in winter—lichen growing, moss, early tree buds, cardinals and sparrows gathering in groups on the snow, a squirrel leaping about to dig where it hid a nut last autumn, a hawk or eagle gliding around then swooping low, looking for a meal. There was the bite of the cold, the rush of a snow flurry, the pelting of hail on my face. There was also the singing of birds in spring, the green-skied vortex of an approaching storm, the stinging rain, the wilting heat of summer, the sawing of the cicada, the myriad-color leaves of autumn. I started a collection of poems about nature, the oneness I felt with it, and I thought, ‘what better way to share this oneness I feel than to honor Basho and write a collection of haiku.’ I took some liberties with the form to make it my own, but in doing so, as I did with the sonnets, I realized that writing in form is an act of discipline that all writers should learn in order to become original later. A good haiku is not an easy thing to master and takes a bit of practice. A great haiku is even harder to master. “A haiku is, or a haiku isn’t,” I think Kerouac or Snyder said. A haiku is not just a 5-7-5 syllabic poem (the English version of a haiku). If anyone would like to acquire a better understanding of haiku, I recommend reading Haiku Moment, edited by Bruce Ross. A haiku captures the Oneness, the feeling of connection to the natural world . . . it could happen while hearing a flap of a birdwing, a bee buzzing by. A haiku captures this moment of oneness with the world, the loss of the self—and this usually happens in a second, or even less. The epiphany comes immediately afterwards—and if the experiencer of the Oneness is a writer, he or she writes the experience down in a concise form (to coincide with the briefness of the “moment”) in order to remember it and share it with readers. There again, like my first book, I had many of the poems published separately in lit mags, then another small publisher in NY printed the collection as a book.
GER: Your literary criticisms have appeared in many publications, including here at FCR. What inspired you on this course and what are the benefits to you as a writer?
SP: That goes back to when I was child again. Another one of my earliest memories is that of reading. I read a lot while I was growing up. I would often share books, Dr. Seuss and such, with friends and family. We would discuss the passages and rhymes and meaning (I didn’t realize this was analysis at the time). As a teenager I was always deciphering Rock-and-Roll lyrics with friends—what does that object in that song signify, what is the double meaning in this word, how does the title coincide with the content, how many symbols are in that that stanza and why are they there? Then as a literature/writing student at Palomar College, Columbia University, and Bennington College, I was able to employ my love of analysis and set my thoughts on paper. This love of analysis benefited me as a writer because I was again, like in teaching later, able to understand how the great writers used, and use, techniques of literature.
GER: You have read your poetry at various venues in Argentina. How important is it for you to read your work in public and what affect does it have on your writing?
SP: I stared a writing group almost as soon as I arrived in Argentina. I thought it would be a good way to help writers help each other. We read our stuff aloud to each other. Later I started a poetry reading group, as a means of sharing literature with others. Once I was invited to read my poems aloud at an annual Buenos Aires International Book Fair. Reading a book alone is a solitary pleasure, a gift from the writer to the reader one book at a time. Reading aloud to an audience is a public event, a gift shared with more than one person in linear time. I discovered by reading my own stuff aloud, especially while I practiced reading aloud to myself, I caught the glitches in the lines, the skips in the meter, the loss of the music I thought was there. Thus, by reading aloud, or preparing to read aloud, I was better able to edit my work.
Stephen Page reading at the Ernesto Sabato Foundation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3b-5YrHXe-U
GER: Your fiction and poetry have appeared widely in the small and electronic press. How do you deal with the submission process and how important is to you as a writer to be published?
SP: Writing and submitting are two completely different processes. They use different halves of the brain, different sections of the cortex. Synapses fire differently. In one process you are a creator—in the other you are a publicist, a promoter, a hand shaker, a delver, a researcher. Every writer should be able to have a secretary edit, another to submit, a publisher, and a promoter to get the work known. That way the writer could spend all of his or her time on his or her writing. Use the cerebrum only for creating. Anyone in any one of the arts may draw parallels with this. Currently, with the revolution of eBooks, many writers need not only to be a creator, they need to be their own editor, their own publicist, and in many cases, their own publisher. In any event, I handle the submission process by dividing part of my “writing” time each day into parts—part for creating, part for editing, and part for submitting.
Writing is immensely more important to me than publishing. Writing is the part I love, the fun part, the part I want to do—the part I need to do. Publishing, however, is a pat on my back, and it is one way I can share with others. I do love sharing.
SP: Yes, I turn to Gary Snyder because of his love of travel and his love of nature, (which I can relate to). I also admire his ability to write well. Snyder spent years meditating in Asia and studying Oriental forms of poetry. Judging by his writing, I think he felt the Oneness, the losing of the self that I feel. I often turn to Mary Oliver and Louise Glück for that same reason—for their apparent awareness of the Oneness (and for their quality of writing). I also turn to other writers and reread their books once in a while because they write well and capture the drama of human interaction, the strife of life, the struggles of relations and love—like Neruda, Cross, Hemingway, Machado, Vallejo, Borges, Plath.
GER: You have quoted Matthew Arnold, “Life is not having or getting, but of being and becoming”. Why this quote and can you expand upon it?
SP: It is easy to become a materialist. Materialism is something innate in all of us and is developed one way or the other depending on our socialization. Historically, we humans—modern Homo sapiens and early humanoids—especially in societies or groups, have almost always measured success by what we own, be it property, possessions, exchange (or even worse, other human beings). What we have or what we are getting—even when we were hunter-gatherers and vying over territory (not just for survival but to feel that a section of land is ours).
Today, we are brought up in a consumeristic world. We are driven, from the time we are children, to want to have things, to get more, to buy a new football, a new jump rope, a new car every year, a superfluous piece of jewelry . . . to be rich, to live in a big house, to own land, to wear new clothes styled in the latest fashion. More often than not we are striving to own more than what we need to survive healthily. I think Sixto Rodriguez said it best when he sang, “You measure your wealth by the things that you hold . . .”
Very few people are taught to seek spirituality, and not just religion, which is societally subjectivized (and there is nothing wrong with religion)—I mean pureness of the soul (if that is what you want to call it, a “soul”—this experience we all have of existence). Not the egotistical sense of existence—the I—but the Oneness. Not many people are taught too meditate, to walk alone in the woods—or participate in any other method that allows zoning into the Oneness. We, as adults, should work harder at teaching children how to be One with the Universe (the universe as we currently imagine it). We need to teach our children respect for land and nature, not only for their spiritual health, but also for their physical health. We also need to teach the kids how to be better people, how to share, how to be good to others, how to be calm in stressful situations. We need teach them to be rich in spirit, generosity, and kindness.
As for each of ourselves, we need to make conscious efforts every day to become a better person than we were the day before, a better human being, a more humane entity that functions well in society and becomes one with the One.
GER: What projects are you currently working on?
SP: Oh, I have at least 10 projects I am working on. Some are stories and some are poems I am compiling or fitting together into meaningful, coherent collections. Some are separate pieces of writing I am editing. Also, I am writing a new book