Rosmarie Waldrop was born in 1935 in Kitzingen am Main, Germany. She moved to the US in 1958. Since then, her more than a dozen books of poetry in English have proved immensely influential in postwar American poetics. They include Reproduction of Profiles (1987), Lawn of Excluded Middle (1993), Reluctant Gravities (1999), and Splitting Image (2004), among many others. Her translations into English include key works by German and French writers, most notably the works of Edmond Jabès, as well as books by Emmanuel Hocquard and Jacques Roubaud; her translation of Ulf Stolterfoht’s Lingos I-IX won the 2008 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation.
Many of these books have been published by Burning Deck Press, which she began with her husband, Keith, in 1961 and which continues to exert a unique experimental force in American publishing and letters. She resides in Providence, RI.
PL: A tense dialectic between ineffability and obligation is sustained throughout your work. “The project must be prolonged in terms of lack,” you write in Reluctant Gravities. In your book-length essay on Edmond Jabès, Lavish Absence, you call on Roman Jakobson, who writes that “the function of poetry is to point out that the sign is not identical with its referent.”
The word is not the event, not its referent. You invoke writing both despite and because of the impossibility of its contiguity with an actual event.
RW: Anyone who writes knows those moments when language takes over and leads us where we hadn’t even thought of going. And we’re always happy when this happens, though it is a relinquishing of control. It is in those moments we know we are really working, working with the language.
I’ve just been rereading George Oppen who complains: “Words cannot be wholly transparent. And this is the ‘heartlessness’ of words.”
This has always puzzled me because I have accepted that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”—though of course we always want to push against limits. It’s not that nothing exists outside language, but that I can’t know it. In as far as I perceive anything it is shaped, made visible, by my language.
In most myths, the word creates the world. In our Judeo-Christian tradition: “God said let there be light.” St. John is even bolder: “In the beginning was the Word.”
At the other extreme, there’s Hegel’s idea that the word kills: when Adam named the animals he annihilated them as living creatures and turned them into concepts.
There’s something to both views—another paradox we have to live with because we live through language. We have to turn to writing, as you say, both despite and because of its non-identity with the event/ding-an-sich.
But I’ve also thought of language as a kind of skin, a membrane, both separating us from “things” and up to a point porous to them, letting inner and outer worlds meet. Just as I think of poetry, of all art, as taking place in between, in what Winnicott calls a “holding environment,” an intermediate zone between self and world, internal and external experience, individual and society. It is the area of play, of make-belief, and of negative capability—being able to be “in uncertainties. mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” or solutions or thing-in-itself.
In practice, I believe it is less a problem of “expressing” than of reaching out toward, of approaching. The manner is likely to be indirect. As Edmond Jabès said: “What I believe, hear, feel is in my texts which say it, without sometimes altogether saying it.”
PL: In your book, Reproduction of Profiles, what seems to be love affair between two people (who are indicated by “you” and “I”) also has to do with our uses of “you” and “I” as words—as indexical markers of persons, of dialogue, of discourse. And also as speculative units within the discourses of philosophy, grammar, psychology. The Cartesian I, for example, or Freud’s ego.
The pronominal can cut both ways. A love affair—copulation—becomes grammatical union: the copula. Which becomes a philosophical question, and so on.
“You” and “I” also signify themselves—and the “love affair” exists on the level of the word, the page.
RW: The “I” and “you” is primarily grammatical, indicating that “language, dialogue, is taking place.” There is a male-female coding to it that allows one to read the poems as sparring of a couple, but I also think of it as the argument we always carry on with ourselves, Goethe’s Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach, in meiner Brust, roughly: “Two souls, alas, dwell in my breast.” The he-she in Reluctant Gravities is an attempt at more equity between the two voices. But it is the same kind of situation, I even say in the prologue: “Two voices on a page. Or is it one?”
PL: You write about a distrust of the image in your work.
RW: Yes, I think that is still very much there with me. A reaction against identifying poetry with metaphor and image, which was still dominant when I arrived here in the sixties.
Claude Royet-Journaud, when Keith and I met him in Paris in 1970, had not yet published his first book, Le Renversement (The Reversal). But he already had the manuscript. And in the middle of that, on a page by itself, is the line “Shall we escape analogy?” And that was sort of a manifesto. Not that we want to do away with it altogether, but rather the compulsion: you must have images.
PL: Tell me more about your time in Paris.
RW: When Keith and I were in Paris then, we connected with Claude and Anne-Marie Albiach, partly over this same concern over images. They had it as a reaction against the surrealists, who were constructing ‘image machines’, and with me it came partly out of my dissertation, Against Language. Why should poetry have to be identified with metaphor?
And also of course Imagism had so strongly stressed that. So we were both reacting to the same thing, but with other examples.
I had started, before we went, to translate Edmond Jabès’ Book of Questions. I had done about fifty pages, and I had written up a little statement about what the whole book is like, the background, and I had sent that to about twenty publishers. They all replied with something like, “looks interesting, but we’ve always lost money on translations—no thanks.”
So I had put that on a backburner, but I thought that if we go there, my own work may not be going well, so that it might be good to have that along as a project, so that if my work isn’t going, I have something already started and can get into easier. But my work had actually started to go very well.
And then we met Claude and Anne-Marie. And when Claude saw the Jabès on the shelf, he rushed across the room and kissed me.
The next day, Claude brought Jabès by and I gave him those fifty pages. And we met again and he said he recognized himself in the rhythm, which really encouraged me. I decided to keep going.
PL: What made you start reading Edmond Jabès?
RW: That was a coup de foudre [lightning bolt]. We actually discovered his early poems after I met Keith in Germany. Keith and I, after he left Germany three months later, conspired to both study in Aix-en-Provence, in France. That year, Jabès’ collected early poems came out, Je bâtis ma demeure (I Build My Dwelling).
The next time we were in France we saw The Book of Questions—by the same guy. I read that and it was an overwhelming experience. It touched on so many things: the idea that thinking is basically questioning, and the whole Holocaust element, both touched me. I don’t think that’s why I started translating it. It was the work and the extraordinary language. It was one of the big experiences.
In Paris we became very good friends. Jabès grew up in Egypt and during the Suez Crisis all the Jews were kicked out. He had already been francophone, so he went to Paris although he had an Italian passport.
There was an earlier point in the nineteenth century when the Jews were having difficulties in Egypt. There was a wave of nationalism, and everyone who wasn’t Turkish or Arabic had to have some nationality. By coincidence, there was an Italian consul around who knew that the Town Hall of Ferrara had burnt down. So he issued birth certificates for the whole Jewish community of Cairo. He knew that it couldn’t be checked. Hence Jabès’ having an Italian passport.
PL: That dovetails with a Jabèsian concept: the primacy of text before the event. Writing, inscription, as its own event.
When you came to Providence after your time Paris, you had already begun Burning Deck. What was the impetus behind the press?
RW: Yes, it started much earlier, in 1961, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It started as a magazine that Keith had great ambitions for. He thought it shouldn’t be a quarterly but a quinterly—it should come out five times a year. And instead, it came out four times in five years. And when we moved to Connecticut in 1968 from Ann Arbor, it became obvious that we couldn’t keep a regular schedule with the magazine, so we decided to let the magazine die and instead did little chapbooks when we could get around to them.
One of the things was simply that no one else was publishing us. And so Keith said if people don’t publish us, we’ll have a magazine and publish ourselves—and other people.
We paid for it by buying a printing press. Keith went around to printers and got estimates and we realized we couldn’t possibly do it. We were both graduate students. So he said, we’ll print it ourselves. It happened that it was the moment when letterpress was going out, so a lot of print shops were dumping their letterpresses in their shift to offset printing. We had no idea of that, but we hit that moment. So for $100 Keith bought a printing press.
PL: Was it also in Ann Arbor that you started writing in English?
RW: I had always tried to write little poems in German, but it never came to anything. They were little attempts. And when I left, I didn’t even bring those. I just threw those out.
When I was in Ann Arbor I did try to write again in German, but it got more and more frustrating and more and more artificial, because I was immersing myself into English, and somehow throwing that away and trying to write in German just didn’t work. And so I thought, ‘Well maybe I can be a translator.’
I was translating various American poets back into German, and I liked that very much, but you don’t translate for yourself: I had no contacts with German magazines, so when I did send things out, even when they got printed, it was a very laborious process. I also didn’t know which the ‘hip’ magazines would have been, so I sent to the ones that I knew about—which were the big ones—and I got responses like, “These ‘minor American writers’ we’re not really interested in.” So it was discouraging; at some point I thought, well, I’ll try it the other way around. And so I tried to translate the other way, and Keith seemed to think they were pretty good. So that’s how it happened. I was translating into English, and I thought well, maybe I can try to write in this too. But it was a long, slow process.
PL: You’ve had a long involvement translating works from French and German into English: Jacques Rouboud, Hocquard, of course Edmond Jabès, and Ernst Jandl, Ulf Stolterfoht. Your Dichten= series translates German writers that haven’t been seen before in English.
As you say in “Form and Discontent,” we are always writing on a palimpsest, writing over someone else’s work—and “translating” it, as you put it. How do your translations and your own writing inform one other?
RW: I am always aware of a space between languages where their structures/systems do not fully overlap (and I don’t even know any non-Indo-European ones).
The impetus to translate, in my case, is envy. I would like to have written the works I translate, and my envy provides the energy to indeed “write” them in my language.
Haroldo de Campos, the Brazilian concrete poet, wrote an essay on translation called “Transluciferation.” It stresses the destructive side of the process: that the “Apollonian crystallization of the original text” must be dissolved back into “a state of molten lava.” Or what I have called trying to get back to the genetic code of the work before you can rebuild it.
PL: I’m interested in your use of formal constraints.
RW: There was a book I wrote, right as I was starting to write prose poems, in which the period in the sentence did not coincide with the end of the sentence, in a way using periods like line ends in verse. But also at the same time since it was prose and could carry over easily, I was trying to work at it such that you could get two different meanings whether you read across the period or whether you stopped at it, so that there’s a multivalence of ways to read. Recently I’ve been working with choosing certain words and their dictionary definitions and trying to make a poem that uses all the words of the dictionary definition. I always look for little tricks, something to work with.
PL: In several poems you use such rules, but you’ve commented before on how you always allow for—and enjoy—the possibility of breaking the constraint. Which might differentiate your concerns from some of those of the Oulipo group: Jacques Roubaud, for instance, whom you’ve translated extensively.
RW: But Oulipo has that too. They have the systems, but they allow for clinamen—Lucretius’ term: when atoms fall, they fall straight down, but somewhere, in one of them, there’s a swerve. And that swerve makes things happen. They have the system but also allow for that swerve. I guess with me, I always allow for the swerve.
- Ding an sich: Thing-in-itself. Term used by Kant to designate the unknowable “object in itself” of cognition; the object which is graspable in its effect yet phenomenally non-sensible, the pre-existence of which is necessary for our capacity of understanding. Usually, as noumenon, opposed to phenomenon, ‘that which shows itself.’
- Oulipo: short for Ouvroir de litterature potentielle: “workshop for potential literature.” A movement of French-language writers marked by their use of formal constraints, founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais. E.g.: S+7 (N+7), in which each word in a phrase is replaced by the word seven entries below it in a dictionary.
- Clinamen: used variously to designate, in art, the technique of deliberately violating the formal perfection of a work in order to augment its beauty (e.g., by allowing the ‘grain’ of a film to show through in an otherwise flawless photograph); in ancient physics, the ‘smallest possible angle’ at which an atom will begin to deviate unpredictably from its otherwise linear fall through a void (Lucretius); by extension, an account for the existence of free will in humans.