Rebecca Wadlinger is a doctoral candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston, where she works as the managing editor of Gulf Coast. She has recently received fellowships from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin and Universitet i Oslo. You can read her translations of selections from A Hundred Thousand Hours on KR Online here.
KR: What exactly is poetry good for?
RW: One use of poetry is that it’s a way for people to process experience and emotion, which is something humans do all the time. As playwright Sherry Kramer once told me, “People are meaning-making machines.” The meaning-making experience happens both with reading and writing poetry, but in different ways.
The best poems can surprise us, charm us, upset us, and knock us to the ground. And the way that poetry moves readers gets them to think differently about the world, which is why poetry has been so important and will continue to be.
KR: In the spectrum of entertainment and media (music, movies, television, Internet, art, etc.) where does the literary pursuit fit?
RW: I like to think of poetry as a really good conversation that has been going on since the beginning of time. Not everyone is interested in gabbing with us, but once you sit down for a bourbon on the porch with us (poets), you’ll find that we’ve got a lot to say.
I also think poetry converges with entertainment and media often, and in ways that aren’t instantly apparent. I guess the main way that all of these media converge is the human impulse towards narrative and storytelling. We like to hear stories and relate with characters and experiences, and that is something that music, movies, television, and art often accomplish.
When thinking about media and literature, younger poets make for an especially interesting study. Because this is the first generation of poets who can Google themselves, and who construct their online “selves” on a daily basis (via online profiles, social networking, e-mails and chatting, etc.), I think that notions of identity have turned corners in poetry. Strange things are happening, and it’s been so interesting for me to develop a perspective and talk to other poets about it. I’m actually working on an essay about these ideas right now–it revolves around a popular rhetorical trope in contemporary writing and the media’s influence on its popularity.
KR: What advice would you give yourself five years ago?
RW: Read a lot. Don’t get too discouraged. Think about why you are writing, and the questions or absences you are seeking to fulfill in the contemporary writing scene. Read even more. Learn how to place your writing in context with others, and be able to articulate your literary lineage and influences (this really helps to achieve clarity with your own writing). Celebrate and share the writing you like. Support other writers however you can, and foster a productive community around yourself.
KR: What internal or external factors have the biggest influence on your creative process?
RW: The biggest factor that inspires me to translate contemporary Norwegian poetry is the simple fact that so few books appear in English. I read a lot of Norwegian poetry, and have an affinity for the dark, surreal narratives and psychological complexity of the work.
When I first came across Gro Dahle’s A Hundred Thousand Hours, I was sorting through the stacks in the basement of the University of Oslo’s library. I had looked through dozens and dozens of poetry books, but as soon as I found this one, I was floored. I remember marveling at Dahle’s intelligence, morbidity, and imagination. I knew this manuscript would appeal to so many American readers–I needed to translate it!
Unfortunately, the book had been out of print in Norway for years, and I couldn’t find a copy to take home with me. My time was running out, too, because my return flight was in a few days, so I ended up writing the manuscript out (in the Norwegian dialect Bokm??l) by hand so that I wouldn’t forget the poems and lose this treasure.
KR: We’d love it if you’d talk about how the books you are reading influence your writing. That could be in so far as your choice of what to translate, or how other works influence your translations.
RW: I’ve read a lot of writing about translation theory and praxis, which has made me think and rethink about the choices translators make and motivations behind them. I think it’s incredibly useful for a literary translator to read the work of notable thinkers (George Steiner, Vladimir Nabokov, Lawrence Venuti, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Jorge Luis Borges, Walter Benjamin, among others) and determine his or her own philosophy and perspective on the art of translation.
As for creative work, I read widely in different genres–poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama. Lately, I’ve been admiring the work of Sarah Ruhl (a playwright), Mary Ruefle and Matthew Zapruder (poets), and Lydia Davis (fiction writer and translator). One key thing that these writers have in common is their attention to voice, which is something I consider while working on both my own creative work and my translations. With the poems in The Kenyon Review, I wanted to be sure that my own voice as a poet didn’t overwhelm the text–instead, I worked hard to preserve the immediacy and manic delight of Dahle’s Norwegian speaker. Voice is an especially tricky factor in translations.
The biggest literary influence, of course, is the actual work of the poet I’m translating. After having transcribed the events of Dahle’s book into English–the furniture coming to life, the daughter leaving through the window, the haunting by a character named “Nobody”–I feel like I have a radical understanding of Dahle’s poetry. I’m reminded of Ruefle’s poem “Perfect Reader,” which begins,
I spend all day in my office, reading a poem
by Stevens, pretending I wrote it myself,
which is what happens when someone is lonely
and decides to go shopping and meets another customer
and they buy the same thing.
Regardless, the act of reading profoundly ties into translation–Spivak calls translation “the most intimate form of reading.” I didn’t fully understand that comparison until I lived so deeply within the world of A Hundred Thousand Hours.
KR: Jumping off from that, we’d love to know how you anticipate what your reader’s imagination will bring to your work?
RW: I can only hope that readers’ imaginations transform A Hundred Thousand Hours into the vivid, surreal scenes that drew me to the manuscript in the first place. Readers’ ability to connect with the subject matter–and to be emotionally moved by it–is essential to the success of a poem. And for Dahle’s work, readers must be ready to go at all moments, and cannot hesitate to think, “Wait, is this real? What is really happening here?” I’ve discovered that an inability to keep an open imagination destroys the momentum and power of these poems.
In the end, though, I can’t really predict what will happen when others read the work. One of my favorite sections towards the beginning of the poem reads, “My mother lives in my arms. In my neck. My mother / lives in gravity. She comes after me down the street / with a dark bag.” You can tell the tone of the poem is oppressive and maniacal here, but what is happening here in your imagination? And what the heck is in that bag?!