In The Guest, poet and literary translator Robin Myers explores poetry translation as process, practice, vocation, meditation, and craft. Drawing both on her own projects-in-progress and the work of other translators, The Guest is a kind of diary, a thinking-out-loud about the pleasures, challenges, and decisions required—and invited—by bringing poems into another language. To do them justice and to make them new.
The Precipitation of a Parallel Sense
As someone who both writes and translates poems, I’m occasionally asked about the relationship between the two: mostly whether the poems I translate find their way into the poems I write, or whether the Spanish I read seeps into my English. To be honest, I’m often flustered by how difficult I find it to answer this question. It’s not that I doubt the influence. Quite the opposite, actually: it feels as omnipresent and amorphous as weather. Or like food, whose range of flavors and ingredients and preparation can temper the mood or sharpen the senses. An effect both easy to see and hard to describe.
Nonetheless, it’s a set of questions—the relationship between writing and translating in the work of writer-translators; the influence of poetry in other languages on poets who write in one—that has come to interest me. And of course, any question I find elusive becomes a welcome excuse to ask someone else.
In this case, it’s Kit Schluter: translator from both French and Spanish (check out his recent English versions of Olivia Tapiero’s Phototaxis and Rafael Bernal’s His Name Was Death); author of the poetry collection Pierrot’s Fingernails; a painter; and my very literal down-the-hall neighbor. Over coffee and tangerines, Kit spoke to me about writing his first book of poems under the influence (so to speak) of the French poetry he’d discovered as a teenager, and I typed feverishly, not so much transcribing as translating our conversation as best I could.
Pierrot’s Fingernails is a book born of “dodging legibility, hiding oneself in the textures of wordplay.” Kit tells me he was interested in creating metaphors that didn’t really have to explain themselves: he wanted to juxtapose elements without justification, but also to invite the reader into the production of meaning. Much as, say, a painting involves many disparate objects placed together without the painter being expected to justify this placement, and as a viewer of visual art may feel invited—free—to speculate about and respond to the emotional landscape invoked. Bristling with unexpected images and associations, Kit’s free-wheeling, playful, leaping-and-bounding prose poems became hideouts: safe places where he could explore ideas and feelings, navigate questions of sexuality and “the discomforts and joys of relating to people,” without shouting them from the rooftops. A closeted language: not concealment for concealment’s sake, nor whimsy for whimsy’s, but a vocabulary of sequestered, refracted queerness. What comes to mind when I soak up the lexicon of these clipped, arch, sweet, fleet-footed poems—“I extend to you the crescent of the spine, and attend this body that hangs like lightning glass from angles of conversation,” he writes in “Journals”—is not so much a shield brandished by the speaker as a flock of birds exploding in flight all around him, allowing us an exuberantly shattered glimpse of who he is and where.
As the poet Noah Warren wrote about Kit’s book, “A game is something that can be described from the outside, and with as much intelligence as you like, but whose values, pleasures, and risks make no sense until you’ve sunk into its world”—and Kit’s poems are game-poems. But unlike many games that punish their players for not fully understanding the rules, Pierrot’s Fingernails invites its readers to find humor, joy, and even a sense of complicity in a non-literal understanding: an impressionistic kind of apprehension. And if this book is, as Noah defines it, “a book by a translator,” then where does translation fit into the game?
A translator is a student of language, and the nature of language is that there’s always more to learn. French, Kit tells me, was the first one he set out to study: his first contact with a whole other world—and with the realization that there are always whole other worlds—that becomes grafted, through language, on physical and emotional experience. His most powerful encounter with poetry in French (Henri Michaux, Comte de Lautréamont, Artur Rimbaud, Pierre-Albert Jourdan) took place when he could understand much but not all of what he read. Which meant he was reading with the ardent trust of a young person stumbling into poetry, and into the materiality of language itself; he was rummaging around for Truth in a fervent, even innocent way, but also thrilled by what he couldn’t quite pin down.
Writing in the glow of this encounter, Kit treated poems as a kind of texture study. He did seek to emulate certain stylistic elements of the poems he was reading; responding, say, to Jourdan’s long lines, long breaths, fragmentary paragraphs, subordinate clauses, and aphoristic bent. More than that, though, he basked in what eluded him: in “this illegibility where I couldn’t possess the language.” He wrote in an attempt to make a language that can’t be generalized or pinned down; a language marked by aspirational meaning, a radiation of potential.
Or, in the words of the poem “Inclusivity Blueprint”:
But remember. You are only here as a process,
as a space a material forced out of its native structures
can return to
when the stakes get raised
even one notch too high.
A translator is a student of language who studies a new language to learn more about their own. His decision to learn French, Kit says, was prompted largely by a fascination with etymology, with the history of the English language and its many roots. And its grammar: studying the structures of a new language made him intensely attuned to “grammar as mind-control,” as he put it, and to the ways in which syntax forces language into armatures of meaning that a writer can only partially control. (In writers like Lyn Hejinian, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Jean Day, Kit found influential examples of English-language writers who disassembled meaning through the distortion of grammar.) Throughout Pierrot’s Fingernails, he doesn’t break down grammar so much as hyper-utilize it, over-attend to it, tamper with it in such a way that language—and the English language, in this case—behaves differently.
A poem like “The Application,” for instance, is essentially an Oulipian exercise in which the speaker undergoes a job application for an unspecified position that forces him “to learn English all over again. Its questions served as a model for the English I hoped eventually to speak”—then lands the job and panics. Another poem, “The Oxford Book of Ballads,” gathers a wild range of words Kit encountered while translating the French symbolist writer Marcel Schwob: old words, strange words in richly unexpected, even comical juxtaposition. And another, “The Notebooks of Ana Cristina Cesar,” is essentially a false translation from Portuguese: a poem manufactured from what words look like on the page or sound like in the ear without fully apprehending them in the original.
Kit’s poems are written both in English, then, and between languages. They’re written, in other words, in other words: in a form in which form holds more weight than content does.
“Its language may be foreign,” he writes in “Journals,” “but in its repetition a parallel sense precipitates.”
It may be a stretch to say that translators are like painters or painters like translators, but I do know that Kit is both, and there’s something very painterly indeed about Pierrot’s Fingernails, about how it streaks and splays its language across an open space and invites readers to project themselves there. A translator invariably reckons with the shape, the vessel offered by the original, creating something new within a set of preexisting constraints. A painter, too, invariably paints in or on something, a canvas, a wall, a form with measurements. Kit is deft at taking seemingly neat little blocks of text and filling them, as he puts it, “with lots of play and destruction and wicked laughter and impishness.” And even in that impishness, we find a solitude, a spaciousness; we find ruminations on intimacy, longing, and the complexity of being a person who longs, not always in plain sight.
In this sense, Pierrot’s Fingernails is constantly “controlling how much of you is legible,” keeping certain secrets not only as a form of self-protection but also as a kind of private joke. A two-wink joke, I’d say: one for anyone who catches on, another for everyone who’s along for the ride.
And the ride is language itself. Languages, plural. The many riotous grammars of life lived “as Queen Anne’s lace picked apart and flicked to the wind.”
Kit Schluter (Boston, 1989) is author of Pierrot’s Fingernails and translator of Rafael Bernal’s His Name Was Death, Anne Kawala’s Screwball, Jaime Saenz’s The Cold, Olivia Tapiero’s Phototaxis, and three books by Marcel Schwob. He lives in Mexico City.