The Weird Translator That Everyone Is

a conversation with poet & translator Paul Legault

by Greg Nissan

published May 2, 2014

Paul Legault is an interstitial poet. He marries a classic lyric sensibility with class-clownery. Sometimes he speaks with the dead, cracking jokes about the living. He is, simply put, between: between the poetic forms of yesteryear and the digital experiments of today, between centuries, and between friends as if in a game of telephone.

     The Sonnets, the first book from Legault’s translation press Telephone Books, co-founded and edited by Sharmila Cohen, is a collection of 154 translations and rewritings of Shakespeare by a vast array of poets. Legault’s own Emily Dickinson Reader, his latest out from McSweeney’s, features translations of every single Dickinson poem into one sentence of common-day English, both morbidly irreverent and attentive to Dickinson’s oeuvre. I encountered Paul’s work through the The Other Poems, a vast chorus of objects, animals, people and abstractions speaking phrases culled from Legault’s friends and surroundings. I video-chatted with Paul via Google Hangouts in the beginning of March. We began to chat and gesticulate about collaboration, parody, and form, as well as his new gig as writer-in-residence at Washington University in St. Louis. 

The Indy: What are you working on at the moment?

Paul Legault: I’ve been editing this translation of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. I wrote a poem in response to each of Frank O’Hara’s poems, and went from there. I started writing that when I was leaving Brooklyn because I’d be giving up my lunch hours. I don’t have lunch anymore. But that's why I wrote them: I’d write them at lunch.

     Now I’m juggling a bunch of different projects. I’ve been teaching, which has been really interesting and has bled into my own work. I’ve also been translating this Belgian poet, Sophie Podolski, with my partner Joseph Kaplan. That’s been really fun because it’s this one entirely handwritten book and she only wrote one book in her entire life. She died in an insane asylum when she was like 21. So it’s just this weird kind of object that we're bringing into English and I've been kind of re-illustrating some of her illustrations and paintings as well. I've been a little more exploratory in St. Louis. I’ve been writing an essay about Google Maps. I’m just writing vague statements about an architectural space on the Internet, really just my musings, but maybe it will cohere. Mostly I’ve been doing different translation projects, which is my general MO.

The Indy: You said that teaching’s been bleeding into your work. I’m curious in what way, since I’m sure it depends so much on whom and what you're teaching.

PL: The students are full of brilliant ideas, so sometimes they can trigger a new idea in my brain. I’m teaching a course this semester on contemporary poetry and social media, so we’ve been exploring how different contemporary poets use social media or don’t use it, or how the audiences talk about their work on social media. That’s led to me inviting poets to Skype into class. We’ll read a new book of contemporary poetry each week and then we’ll discuss and respond to it. I end up picking books that I’ve already read and love, but I learn more about them than I knew. I feel like I'm back in school.

     The social media class has been really interesting. I think it’s given me a lot of thought about reception and how a poet who has 5,000 Twitter followers is getting more notice than a poet who’s won a big award sometimes. It's not one-to-one, and the systems of exchange are different.

The Indy: I like the idea of Skyping writers in. I saw Josh Edwards and Corina Copp read in Berlin, but Corina was Skyped in. The Skype connection was perfect, but given the stark line breaks in her work, where it almost feels like a succession of fragments, it initially appeared as if a faulty connection was cutting off her speech at certain places. Even though technology was functioning perfectly, it took an aspect of her work that on paper is very authorial and intentional and put it into this realm of, is this her or is it technical breakdown?

PL: I like that idea because I sometimes feel it’s that technical breakdown that feels like the human quality. That pausing can feel like what makes the poem human. When you hear these little accidents when it’s being read, it feels like a human is reading it to you, but sometimes those accidents are given to the poetry by technology, and I think that's interesting as well. Or sometimes you think they're given to you by technology when they're really given to you by this robot human, impersonating a robot. Corina doesn't do that—she's definitely a very human human. But I know what you mean.

     She actually Skyped into my class last semester, so we had a similar experience. It ended up that she was on my phone and I passed my phone around the room and people took turns talking to her. It's that kind of sloppy technology that always contributes to the class. I've been enjoying that advantage. Often it does lead to problems, but I’ve been willing to make accidents and explore that gap.

The Indy: On the subject of teaching, what are some books that you really love teaching and what are some works you've been recommending lately?

PL: I’ve been reading and re-reading this beautiful book called Untitled Epic Poem on the History of Industrialization by Buckminster Fuller. It took me a while to realize that Buckminster Fuller was a poet, but once I did, I realized that he’s a brilliant poet. He writes this kind of aerated prose. He has a term for it that's something like that. It's line breaks but he calls it something else, and then he wrote this beautiful history of industrialization that's lineated. It's impossible not to read as poetry.

     I've been enjoying finding these hybrid texts that trace an interesting tradition to some of the things I’m seeing that are happening naturally between prose and poetry and theory. Buckminster Fuller was just such a kook, and I think we can all enjoy that kind of kookiness in our life. This kind of seriously insane optimism. It's a remedy to some of the other works I like to teach that are, I don't know, depressing. I try to read a lot and variously.

     There are different strategies for reading. I have different levels of reading. I feel like I've been reading Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems for the past six months, because I’ve been reading the poem and then trying to reimagine it, then reading it, then actually writing it. Writing in the voice of Frank O’Hara, which is a form of reading. I’ve been reading a few books over and over, which kind of makes up for checking out a book from a library and only reading one essay in it. I've been trying to learn to read like I learn on the Internet with books and forgive myself for jumping around a lot between the two. I've been reading the work of my friends. And my dead friends.

The Indy: More on friends alive and dead: I want to ask about the role of collaboration in your work, whether it's collaborating with hundreds of other writers to compile The Sonnets, or with the Emily Dickinson Reader, sort of an indirect correspondence with her. It seems like you're doing something similar with Frank O'Hara. How does collaboration, even in some of your other works that might not be as obviously collaborative, inform your work or your experiences writing?

PL: My first impulse towards poetry was a sort of classic isolationist approach. My first book [The Madeline Poems] was very much just poems written with my headphones on listening to classical music kind of lyricism, which was broken into by other traditions and hopefully turned out alright. At the same time, I find that collaboration has been meaning a lot more to me as I go on. Like with The Other Poems, which was a kind of collaboration with all the people around me. It was kind of a document of grabbing language from other people and putting it in the mouth of abstractions or objects or people or animals, taking that language and placing it into this little story.

     I guess the Emily Dickinson Reader was another form of collaboration, but she was dead. She did give me my guide and my limitations, which I often need to start a project. I think everyone does. Just to know that this project is about, you know, this part of the Venn diagram. For me that project was fun because when I finished I knew it was done. I got to the last poem of her book and I knew it was done. And she did start to kind of haunt my life in all these ways which were I guess a form of collaboration [laughter], but more like I really had invoked her spirit—because all of a sudden I was in conversations with all these other Emily Dickinson mega-fans, and going to her grave and to her house. But I guess I'd already been doing that. I like going to her house. I like feeling like I am talking to her a little bit, even though it's a lie.

     I didn't entirely notice the benefit of working with a dead poet until, well, my most recent book, which is about to come out in 2015 from Fence. It's a translation from memory of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror [by John Ashbery]. I'd read the poems and then try to write them from memory. That John Ashbery is alive gives it a certain tension of collaboration in which I'm waiting for the approval to come, whereas with Emily Dickinson I just optimistically guessed that she would approve, even though deep down I know that she wouldn't even have approved of her family collaborating to turn her work into a book. She wanted it all to be burnt after her death, but she was dead, so that resistance to collaboration was kind of a moot point. I am excited to hear what John Ashbery thinks of my version of John Ashbery.

     Then collaboration in the sense of Telephone, definitely. It was my first kind of glimpse into the poetry community. I had just moved to New York. I was living with an MFA student at the New School. I ended up meeting a lot of the other MFAs in the program and I had just graduated from my MFA, so we were kind of like this social circle of imports who were baby poets and what baby poets like to do and should do is start presses. Small presses. Our friends had started a journal and it gave us this healthy competition, honestly. There was this kind of rivalry that was like, well, if they're gonna start a journal, we're gonna start a journal, we can do this. So Sharmila Cohen and I, we were at brunch, and we were talking about possibilities of starting a journal. We were talking about this idea of a game of telephone and how that could be productive as a translator. Really our press just started as a journal that grew into a baby imprint, an imprint of a small press. But I do feel like it's been useful for me, in that it was a venue with which I could introduce myself to the poetry community and get to know them. We switched languages each issue, so I got to know German poets through the first issue and then French poets in Montreal, a specific group of French poets, and then a little bit of Brazilian poetry when we worked with Augusto de Campos. For me it was this opportunity to ask writers whose work I respected to work with me. That kind of collaboration helped to validate my own work. It was just two sides of the same coin.

     I collaborate constantly with my partner-in-crime Joseph Kaplan. He's a designer and I'm a poet and those two interests go really well together. We make books. That's what makes sense to us. We both want to make books. He wants to do that part of making the book and I want to do that other part. Collaboration can sometimes be a really freeing exercise in which you aren't the name on the book, you know what I mean? If you're working with a group of people, I feel sometimes it's a more generous act. Sometimes writing doesn't feel like a generous act. Sometimes it feels like a very selfish thing. But collaboration has let me see some other forms of working that feel like I'm helping a poet's legacy move forward. Being free to not be the only person working on something is really nice. It's less lonely. [Laughter].

The Indy: While we're talking about different forms of translation, I wonder, how does translation and philosophies behind translation configure into your work that's not actually translation?

PL: I guess I really started exploring these kinds of theories of translation and ideas of translation when I started Telephone. I had been thinking about them and I had been writing the Emily Dickinson Reader, translating Emily Dickinson from English to English, for which the word translation seemed right to me. What was interesting when I said English to English translation was usually people's response would be, "Oh! Like this one other person." Everyone had an example of that; it wasn't unheard of. But these examples created this tradition for me.

     Also I was talking to my collaborator on Telephone, Sharmila, and she'd been focused on the work of contemporary Berlin poetry and really interesting German translation. We noticed that we had a lot to talk about, even though our approaches to translation were completely opposite in some ways. Hers was specifically about this one country, this one language, and mine wasn't even about translation really. [Laughter]. So we spent time talking about where we met, because where we met was this interesting place where people are taking the strategies of translators and using them to create original works, which I think is what's happening across the board. People take other peoples' works and they remix them, they re-appropriate them. In poetry that's been happening for a while. You have these kind of rebellious translators once in a while popping up, saying, “No! it's all about…", just creating a new work from the old. And the rebels are more interesting honestly. Not that I don't believe in the complicated process of attempting a literal translation and the benefits of that, especially for a book that's never been translated before. But I'm always forgiving myself for taking liberties because, you know, Ezra Pound wrote Cathay using a Japanese dictionary to translate a Chinese poem. And nowadays we have Google translate, which is an endless, deeply interesting tool. It is constantly expanding and it allows for this weird translator that everyone is. Everyone translates things now.

The Indy: I think that's one of the reasons that I love reading translation, besides the generative techniques we discussed and its implications in breaking down national literary cultures; it's this way of rewiring things, making networks in different directions.

PL: Yeah, and I feel like poets can do this too. They just write a book and it shapes culture in a way but there's a different kind of effect when you bring over the work of a great poet who’s already established as great and you infect America with it or vice versa. It's a powerful act. I have been thinking more and more how poets and artists are becoming publishers and curators and that's just one of the creative powers of language. Writing extends beyond writing into reading and translation does that so fluidly. I think it's a cool trend that poets would be active participants in that distribution of literature. And reading of it. There are a lot of venues that writers have to create and they're not all writing. I think it's interesting when people find those and operate in them. It's healthy.