Paisley Rekdal is the author of four works of nonfiction, including Appropriate: A Provocation (W. W. Norton, 2021), and six collections of poetry, most recently West: A Translation (Copper Canyon Press, 2023) and Nightingale (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), which won the 2020 Washington State Book Award for Poetry. Rekdal, formerly Utah’s poet laureate, is also the recipient of fellowships, grants, and prizes from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, Pushcart Press, and the Academy of American Poets.
Poets.org: As its title suggests, West: A Translation is intended, in some sense, as a work of translation. And yet, it only contains one work that we would traditionally regard as a translation, that being the English rendering of the anonymous Chinese poem to which the book responds. Indeed, comparing your work to the anonymous poem itself, you call your translations “a series of violations.” How do you understand the task of translation, and what fidelities do you believe the translator must have, particularly when considering the ethical and intellectual stakes involved when translating work?
Paisley Rekdal: I think translation is what I call it in the book: “a carefully cultivated loss.” You can’t translate everything about a poem, since not everything carries over perfectly (or even well) into the other language, so you have to make thoughtful decisions about what you are choosing to abandon. Notice, for example, that almost all English translations of Ovid or Homer are in iambic pentameter, not dactylic hexameter, since that meter doesn’t work naturally in our language, and the pentameter line is most closely associated with our English ideas of the epic. With that said, I don’t think there are universal fidelities translators can finally have about the act of translation, since we also translate with an eye towards time and social context: How has this poem been translated before and with what results? In that sense, the identity of the translator herself can matter hugely. Stephanie McCarter’s recent translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, states plainly that characters are being raped rather than euphemistically “ravished” or “seduced,” and Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey makes Helen a more fascinating and more human character. Frankly, though I’ve translated plenty for school, I neither consider myself a translator nor is West a conventional translation, as you note, since I only write one actual translation, and throughout the book do an arguably bad job of translating the Chinese characters in the titles of my poems. Those “bad” translations are deliberate though, since I wanted the sense of the titles being wildly insufficient renderings of what is actually being communicated. To me, this approximates the work of both archival research and history writing: Each document presents itself as a possible truth about the past, but how might the document also get the larger “Truth” about history wrong? Translations—even good ones—are semblances, just as histories, too, work within the porous boundary between the real and the speculative.
Poets.org: The poem 有識/“Have Knowledge” features a litany of questions framed as an interrogation of Chinese laborers who immigrated to the United States during the mid-nineteenth century. Although these questions are rhetorical, even storytelling in their detail, the interrogative direct address provokes the reader. How do you view this relationship between reader and subject? Do you believe that the “self” is always present while reading a poem?
PR: This is a complex question because audience and addressee in poems aren’t automatically the same. Obviously, my poem is “addressed” to Chinese migrants during the [Chinese] Exclusion Act [of 1882]. But the audience of the poem is all of us living today, who may or may not be Chinese, may or may not have any relationship at all to Chinese American history. In that sense, the reader / audience of the poem is asked to critique the language of the poem in ways that the addressee, at the time, had to take seriously. So the question of the “self” here requires that self be divided since you have to see the poem in and from two different time periods, through the perspective of two different identities—the identity of the Chinese migrant being interrogated, and the identity of the present-day American who would naturally want to resist this form of interrogation. Perhaps you may even read the poem through the perspective of the questioner as well, since you’d want to understand what kinds of obsessions drive him or her, in order to better critique them. You never abandon the self when reading; you only expand its possibilities.
Poets.org: You work with multiple poetic forms in this collection, including both erasure and contrapuntal poems. You both adhere to and break with traditional Chinese verse, while also incorporating first-hand accounts and documents into the text to encourage a sense of intimacy in addition to confronting systemic racialized oppression. Why did you choose to interweave epistolary poems into this collection?
PR: If by epistolary poems you mean the few poems in West that function explicitly as letters addressed to particular people, it was to give readers a sense of overheard intimacy. That’s very much the case with the letters from Irish workers that I turned into poems. I was so struck by the ways in which these letters revealed the emotional cost of leaving home. Reading those letters, I finally understood the tremendous psychological and physical distances that people had traveled to find work: They knew there was a very real likelihood that they would never return to Ireland, or that their family members back home wouldn’t or couldn’t (or even shouldn’t) join them in the States. Their letters also revealed how much cholera had decimated Irish communities abroad. Their letters, more than any of the other documents, spoke powerfully to me during the Covid-19 lockdown, which is when I was researching and writing these particular poems. Also, I liked juxtaposing the public language of op-eds and memoirs and travelogs with the private language of family letters and oral histories. I liked the roughness and spontaneity of their speech, which felt both more poetic and immediate to me than the writings of more polished writers, like Anthony Trollope or Frederick Jackson Turner.
Poets.org: In a section of “Notes Towards an Unrelated Country: An Essay” titled “Return,” you ask “[W]hat if the point of grief is not its resolution but the extension of memory, the insistence that the listener, too, carry our history into the future?” Has writing West changed your relationship to the elegiac form and the process of mourning?
PR: I learned to see the elegy as a form of positive, communal remembrance. It’s not really a poem of grief so much as a poem of endurance, a restatement of communal values and commitments. These commitments are, of course, couched in the language of loss and even political or social grievance, but by making these griefs widely known—by, effectively, stating how institutions have betrayed your own interests—you are also implicitly arguing for what you want to defend, what you care for and about, what you finally believe. In that sense, I see the elegy not as a poem of private, unresolvable mourning, but of social aspiration.
Poets.org: What are you currently reading?
PR: I am taking on a new job as director of the American West Center, so I am steeping myself in some histories of the region: Beneath These Red Cliffs: An Ethnohistory of the Utah Paiutes, Being and Becoming Ute: The Story of an American Indian People, and Boundaries Between: The Southern Paiutes, 1775–1996. I’m also doing some programming next year around the West and AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] communities, so I just ordered Brandon Shimoda’s new book, Hydra Medusa.
Poets.org: What are your favorite poems on Poets.org?
PR: This changes based on what I want or need to find in a poem. Most recently, I was moved to find one of my favorite Nâzim Hikmet poems, “On Living,” appear as one of the site’s featured poems. And I will always remember reading Li-Young Lee’s “Big Clock,” which appeared as one of the Poem-a-Day features in 2021.