Poet Jenny Minniti-Shippey, San Diego State University professor, and managing Editor of Poetry International, first full length book of poems “Earth’s Horses & Boys.”
Poet Piotr Florczyk is a San Diego State University professor in the Master of Fine Arts in Poetry, he also teaches poetry at University of San Diego, and he has translated four volumes of poetry from Polish Poets. He's also co-founder of Calypso Editions Press.
Related Story: SDSU Takes Poetry International
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Think about a poem you love. You recite it in your mind, and it exists as a work of art you carry with you. But if you think about what makes the poem work, it's probably the rhythm, the sound, and the context of the carefully chosen words, chosen often for their multiple meanings. It's that aspect of poetry that makes the task of translating poems from one language to another incredibly difficult. At San Diego State, a literary journal called Poetry International works to broaden the boundaries of poetry through careful translation and enthusiastic promotion. I’d like to introduce my guests, poet Jenny Minniti-Shippey, she’s an SDSU professor and managing editor of Poetry International. Jenny welcome to the program.
MINNITI-SHIPPEY: Thanks for having me Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Piotr Florczyk is a poet, he is also an SDSU professor in the masters of fine arts in Poetry at SDSU and he teaches poetry at the university of San Diego. He has translated four volumes of poetry from Polish poets. Piotr welcome.
FLORCZYK: Thank you so much.
CAVANAUGH: Now, let me start by just getting this out there, some poets believe that poetry can't really be translated. You must have heard that before. What's your answer to that Jenny?
MINNITI-SHIPPEY: Well, I think that that is a fantastic question. And it's one that translators wrestle with. Every translator approaches the act of translation differently. And I think depending on the poet, in the original language, you're going to either see a translator be very meticulous with capturing the literal sense of the word or they will move into more of an effort to make translation beautiful in English.
CAVANAUGH: I see. And Piotr?
FLORCZYK: That's exactly right. I would perhaps only add that there's also something known as imitation. So a lot of translators decide to do away with transliteration and translating something literally and simply produce an imitation of the original text.
CAVANAUGH: Do you have to be a poet, Piotr, to translate poetry?
FLORCZYK: I think it helps to be a poet, yes. Absolutely. I think it helps to have had experience with words, with sounds, and forms of poetry. Absolutely.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Jenny, how did the idea of Poetry International magazine develop?
MINNITI-SHIPPEY: Well, Poetry International was founded by Fred Moramarco, who was a professor at San Diego state in 1997. And his mission and the mission that we have tried to maintain since then was to not only publish the best work possible in English but also introduce English language readers to work that maybe they didn't have access to. So since the beginning, we’ve featured sections of translations from various countries, including most recently Romania, China, Burma, so that English language readers would have the opportunity to read those works.
CAVANAUGH: Do you think I could ask you to read a poem from the current issue of the journal?
MINNITI-SHIPPEY: I would be happy to.
CAVANAUGH: (Laughing) Okay.
MINNITI-SHIPPEY: And speaking of different types of translations, I'm going to read a poem by Osip Mandelstam, which was translated by Christian Wiman, and what Christian Wiman has done has really tried to capture some of the musicality of the original language without really being obsessive about the literal meaning of each line. So this is the poem “Night Piece”. "Come love, let us sit together -- in the cramped kitchen, breathing kerosene. There is fuel enough to forget the weather. The knife is ours and the bread is clean. Come love, let's play the game of what to take and when to run, of come with me, and come what may, and holding hands to hold off the sun."
CAVANAUGH: And the name of the poet again?
MINNITI-SHIPPEY: Osip Mandelstam.
CAVANAUGH: From Romania?
MINNITI-SHIPPEY: From Poland.
CAVANAUGH: Poland, I’m sorry. So that's just one of the poems that's been translated in this current issue of Poetry International. Now, Piotr, I know that you've translated and published four books of poetry, all originally by Polish authors, all translated into English from the Polish, is this a mission of yours that you want the world or at least the English speaking world to hear more from these Polish poets?
FLORCZYK: That's part of it. I was born and raised in Poland. I'm fluent in Polish. I did not come to the U.S. until I was 16. So a large part of my formative years were spent in Poland where I also read poetry. And so the reason why I translate Polish poetry into English is because I'm very much attuned to what's going on in Polish poetry. I read Polish poets, contemporary Polish poets, and I see translation as an act that's inseparable from my work as a poet, as a poet writing in English. I think the two activities really feed off each other.
CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. And I'm going to turn around the question that I asked you before, and that is what does translating poetry give to you in writing your own poetry?
FLORCZYK: Well, one of the things I pay attention to when I translate actually before I select the poet to translate is whether or not the poet or the poet's work rather is different from my own work. So it's really a process of discovery. I select poets whose work means a lot to me, whose work speaks to me, and in the course of translating their work into English , I learn something from them as a poet.
CAVANAUGH: You're nodding, Jenny. Is that the same? Does it feed your poetry as well?
MINNITI-SHIPPEY: I think absolutely. And I think that that is a theme that I hear from so many translators. Is that they learn so much from the act of translating that then carries over into their own work.
CAVANAUGH: Piotr can I ask you to read one of your poems for us?
FLORCZYK: Yes this is an original poem written in English. It's called “Still Life With Apples”. When you first bite into a hard, green apple, and the tart juice runs down the stubble on your chin and neck, you realize you know nothing about how it ended up in a fruit bowl you got as a gift. So you think up an orchard and a farmer driving a tractor, baskets, ladders, knives. A sun that rises and sets over pock-marked hills. This isn't your life. The trees change color with the apples. You know you couldn't look after them but you try. Come out, you worm, you say to the bruised hole at the center, then you bite around it, and wait for something to answer.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, that was lovely. We're talking about this poetry journal, Poetry International, that features the poems of people from across borders, and I'm just wondering Jenny, here we are in a border region, and is there any particular outreach that you make as the managing editor of this or as a teacher to the poetry community across the border, Baja?
MINNITI-SHIPPEY: That's an excellent question, and it's one that we have answered in various ways I think as a community at SDSU. There's one really wonderful program called border voices, which hosts a transnational literary festival every year. SDSU students and Poetry International staff members have often been featured readers at border voices, or have done workshops either here at SDSU or across the border. I think that we could do more. But it's a question of how we gain access to each other as communities. And we're always trying to open those lines of communication and synergy.
CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting, and would be interesting to take that a little bit further but I don't want to lose the opportunity to have you read one of your own poems too. Again, a published poet in your own right, and you'll be reading a selection from your book, “earth’s horses, and boys”.
MINNITI-SHIPPEY: Yes, thank you so much. This is “moonlighting as the angel of death”. I know this is a desirable position, but I believe I have qualities necessary to make a great Death. I love to sleep in. If hired, no one will die in the morning. I promise to honor as many last wishes as possible. I accept no bribes. I cause no pain. I, as Death, will only come in the rain. I will come with shower-wet hair and cut-out cardboard wings, and black serpents tattooed around my wrists. Their heads will swallow their tails so we remember we are made of earth. And as earth, we shall all return.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you. You two must have so much fun with that going on all the time.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: You're both published, established poets, but your students, it's possible that what they could do is publish their own works, because now in the digital age, basically that's really feasible for people to do now. I wonder what you think the digital world has done for or to poetry. Let me start with you Piotr.
FLORCZYK: Well I think it has Democratized the poetry community, the poetry world. It seems not a day goes by without somebody starting a journal or starting a press, and that's really wonderful that up and coming poets have all these venues and outlets to choose from and to present their work to the world. And I might add that it's not just about publishing poetry. It's really also about taking part in the conversation surrounding poetry, so criticism, for instance, writing reviews, commenting on other poets' work, I find that really, really important and really stress that with my students here at SDSU.
CAVANAUGH: And Jenny?
MINNITI-SHIPPEY: I think that it has made poetry so accessible. And I agree with Piotr completely that it is exciting to watch our students enter these online communities as well as print communities. I have students who have founded literary journals, online literary journals, where they're able to publish their own criticism and interview authors and really make relationships that weren't possible I think before this wave.
CAVANAUGH: You know, the standard idea is that poetry is a lovely thing to study, but you're not going to make a living at it. And you need to move on.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: In a sense. I think a lot of parents feel that way, if their students are studying it. But I'm wondering, and you two must have thought about this a great deal, if indeed your student who is very passionate right now does not go on to become a poet for a living, for a vocation, what can this study give to them in their larger life as they move on, whether or not they choose to become a poet?
MINNITI-SHIPPEY: Well, actually, I think that it is -- a person is going to be a poet, and no poet makes a living at it, but it is a vocation. I think those are really two separate things. And that what we're doing with our students is we're encouraging them to pursue their passion and giving them a way to pursue it to the best of their abilities, and it will follow them, I think, and feed their lives in a way that is necessary for people who truly love poetry.
CAVANAUGH: Feed their lives in their view of the world or in their relationships? How does that do that Piotr?
FLORCZYK: Well, it helps them communicate with other people, and it helps them to translate. We've talked a lot about translation. Well, we actually do translation on a daily basis. We look at the world, we look at the people around us, we think, we experience things, and then we sort of translate those things into language, into words in order to share those experiences with other people. So yeah it's very true that actually very few poets can make a living as poets. But that doesn't mean that poetry isn't important to the rest of us. It really remains a vital component of our existence and our outlook as human beings. So whether people write poetry to express themselves, or they seek out poetry to help them make sense of the world and what's going on or happening in their lives is one in the same, really.
CAVANAUGH: Now, this is national poetry month as I said in the very beginning, I'm wondering, and let me start with you, Jenny, how would you recommend our listeners reconnect with poetry, perhaps, if they've lost touch?
MINNITI-SHIPPEY: That is a fantastic question. There are so many ways, especially right now, to be surrounded by poetry or to access poetry. One of the simplest things to do is to go to poetrydaily.com and sign up to get a poem a day in your e-mail inbox. And that's a great way to kind of reconnect with poetry and the poetry community if you’ve lost touch. And during national poetry month, many places host poetry readings or festivals, and those are always easily accessible and typically lots of fun.
CAVANAUGH: And Piotr?
FLORCZYK: I would also recommend in addition to this for people to seek out community groups and writing groups. Probably at this very moment, all over this country, there are people gathering around kitchen tables and looking at each other's poems and coming up with writing exercises for each other so they can get better as poets. So getting involved within the community by seeking out like-minded people is another way to reconnect with poetry.
CAVANAUGH: That's great advice. And I want our listeners to know, if they are left wanting to reconnect, there's actually even an event tonight, part of the Living Writers Series, poets Forrest Gander and Pura Lopez-Colome will be reading at 7:00 PM at San Diego State's Love Library. And the brand new double-edition of Poetry International is available through their website poetryinternational.sdsu.edu . Jenny Minniti-Shippey and Piotr Florczyk thank you both so much.
MINNITI-SHIPPEY: Thank you.
FLORCZYK: Thank you so much for having us.