by Jaimie Li | Contributing Writer
On Friday, November 30, New York-based poet and translator Jeffrey Yang will give a reading at Hugo House from his latest book Hey, Marfa, published by Graywolf Press earlier this year. The reading, presented in partnership with the Elliott Bay Book Company, will be followed by a conversation with fellow poet and translator Don Mee Choi. Yang and I met in Marfa, TX to discuss his newest book and his eclectic influences over coffee sodas and sourdough slabs piled high with avocado, tahini, sesame seeds, and za’atar. The resulting interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When you first visited Marfa on a Lannan Foundation residency in 2011, you wrote the first full draft of your translation of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo’s June Fourth Elegies. How did the idea for Hey, Marfa come about?
During that trip, I really stuck to a strict schedule and ploughed through a whole draft of the translation. I was also writing other little things myself, either just notes for things that were going on or ideas for poems. It wasn’t really until I left Marfa that some of what I wrote just kind of stayed with me, and I kept writing more. At first, I was really resisting it because, for one, Marfa is a place that creatively thrives on being a bit isolated and removed. But it just kept staying with me, these themes and ideas, like the lines of energy crossing the desert. I continued to work on the book even though I wasn’t sure what it was going to be. In one sense, I was writing a kind of poetic diary, but kind of not. I’ve always loved what Octavio Paz says, that all poetry is essentially a form of diary.1From In Light of India: “A book of poems is a sort of diary in which the author tries to preserve certain exceptional moments, whether joyful or unfortunate.” The structure ended up changing a lot over time before I finally hit upon the way it is, more or less, now. It circles and spins out into other connected things.
You’ve played with structure a lot in your previous work. In No Home Go Home / Go Home No Home, your 2017 collaboration with visual artist Kazumi Tanaka for The Paris Review, you adapted renga, the Japanese linked verse form, by imposing a square visual field drawn from Chinese poetry and inserting Tanaka’s images into the poem like preordained verse units. Did you use a similar set of rules in Hey, Marfa?
Not exactly. In grad school, I translated a cycle of Su Shi’s poems called East Slope, and I hit upon this formalistic rectangular field of spaces and breath and not having to use punctuation. It fit in with all of the ideas of what the translation of these Chinese poems could be in English. The project No Home Go Home / Go Home No Home also uses a rectangular field, a similar kind of visual formalism. In Hey, Marfa, it’s different, but I’m always very interested in structure and so there are certain poems, like “Particles of Irwin,” that maybe do come more directly out of that idea of pauses and breath. Another poem is shaped like an ancient artifact, a cong vessel, but overall this book has different structure, each poem, each cluster of poems, are connected in different ways while moving in different directions in different times.
You’ve collaborated with visual artists several times now—notably with Tanaka in 2017 and with Melissa McGill on Line and Light in 2015. How did you come to work with painter Rackstraw Downes for Hey, Marfa?
Actually, some of the first things I ever wrote back in college were all connected to visual images. Poetry is so much about sound and music, but also about the image and the movement of images. So I was playing around with that early on, connected to the lyric impulse.
I knew about Rackstraw’s work before coming here in 2011. The publisher of New Directions, Barbara Epler, is friends with him and had edited some of his essays. In return, Rackstraw gave her a large drawing that used to hang in her office. It wasn’t until a few years into the writing of Hey, Marfa, while I was continuing to think about the structure of the book, that we started to correspond, and at one point I asked him if he might be interested in doing something together, with images and text. He’s a very solitary artist who goes out to the same spot year after year to paint, working slowly and empirically—and his paintings reflect this meticulous observation. He wrote me back a really nice letter directing me to an essay by Fairfield Porter, in a book he had edited of Porter’s writings, that was basically a review of collaborations between poets and artists and how none of them worked! For me, that was great; I loved that response.
But we continued to write, and in one letter maybe a year later I sent him a new poem. Suddenly he seemed to have a change of heart and he suggested that I use the series of paintings that are now in the book, and which I had known about. Later he invited me to his studio in Soho to look at some of the preparatory drawings for the paintings. I chose thirteen of them to make a visual poem that kind of echoes the arc of the whole book, from the first drawing of a substation in Marfa to the last drawing of a substation in Presidio.
I have to ask: what was the poem that you sent him? Was it one of your substation poems?
I sent him a few things, but I think it really was “Cave,” the very last “Cave” poem that centers on Ellora. By that point the book has really kind of circled out from the physical space of Marfa. That’s what I like about physical landscapes—they connect with seemingly disparate things in our mind through language, imagination, history.
As for the substation poems, I had written one before I wrote Rackstraw, just because I liked that substation, as well as his painting of the substation. I was already playing around with the physical wire and lines of energy. When you’re in the middle of the desert, driving around, it becomes so apparent and miraculous, those substations and utility poles [mimes extending into the distance]. Usually when you’re in a city or a suburb you try and hide those things. Once I started looking at Rackstraw’s paintings, I was thinking of how to tie the whole book together in different ways and I thought I’d try to write other poems that come out of this series of paintings and drawings.
I don’t necessarily see many odes to feats of engineering; what draws you to the substations?
I love the language that comes out of science and engineering and all these things that can feed into poetry. I admire the work of Hugh MacDiarmid, the Scottish poet, who brings a lot of that different language into some of his poems. I remember a great thing that Etel Adnan, a Lebanese-American Poet, once said: that she fell in love with English and learned English through listening to sportscasters because there’s so much specific language and language play. To me, science can bring that sort of fun and specificity into language. The research I did into the substations and their function summoned up a whole lexicon that comes with them. I wanted to play around with the terminology and have it feed into the music of the poem. I did a similar thing in my first book An Aquarium, where there’s certain poems that carry biological, scientific language into the lines.
You mentioned earlier about how studying marine biology in college influenced your first book An Aquarium. In Hey, Marfa, I noticed the influence of your work as a translator, in particular the opening lines translated from the Chinese: “Truthful words are not beautiful / Beautiful words are not truthful”. Then in the poem “Three Notes on Translation” you write, “Florid sayings are not trustworthy, and trustworthy words are not florid”. I assume that’s intentional?
Yeah, so you caught that! I love Lao Zi and the Dao De Jing. Actually, I’ve been working on something else that deals more directly with that text. There’s been a huge number of translations of it, maybe over a hundred. I once taught a translation seminar at Columbia where I had students look at that opening line in several translations, and how each translation dealt with the line in a different way. There is such a deep history of commentary and glossing in Chinese. But what is the text really saying? What kind of meaning comes between those two translations? It’s fascinating to think about. And the beauty in a seemingly simple line that is really incredibly complex, besides the fact that you’re dealing with the whole history of the manuscript itself when there is no original, as the text has been pieced together through archaeological finds and changes with new discoveries.
Speaking of archaeology, Hey, Marfa itself feels like a found text in certain parts in that it incorporates the stories of current Marfa residents as well as past figures like migrant workers and surveyors in the early 1900s. One of your oft cited sources of text in your book is the Book of Last Words—is that apocryphal or real?
Those are all real last words! I think it was more popular in the 19th and early 20th century to note down people’s last words. I’m not sure how far back the tradition goes, but there are actual collections of these things that were published, like anthologies, which I pulled from, as well as finding a lot of others in random texts. For me, the Book of Last Words was another way of tying the collection together, as they connect to different poems, connect to certain ideas and themes. I went back and forth with different titles for this book and one idea I had for it was a homage to William Carlos Williams’s The Desert Music. The desert has historically been linked to wilderness and death—crossing it, entering it, involved so much risk. That and the fact that some of the people that I had met here have died since then, and then the state of Texas being a death-penalty state.
And so the last words are a mix of writers that I admire and also of some who were on death row. I discovered that all those last words are publicly available—I’m not sure why. It’s incredibly intense and horrifying to read them, eerily eulogistic. These recurring last words contribute to the whole recursive structure of the book.
Was the way in which you chose to write about Marfa an inherently political choice?
I think the political is always a part of our life, just the same way that science, or history, is. Writing doesn’t have to be propagandistic to be political. There’s a couple of books that I read in college that could be considered a form of travel writing, and I still think about them a lot. One was A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid. Another was Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Both of these books have a very subversively insightful way of thinking about travel and visiting places and what tourism means. So being here, and then deciding to write about being here, has always involved a lot of digging into the history and other aspects of the place, to try and understand more of how it came to be the place it is and offer a different kind of empirical, expanding map of the place—a geography of the imagination to borrow Davenport’s phrase, rooted in the real.
After you translated June Fourth Elegies, you were quoted in an interview saying, “The poems aren’t polemic—they are political in the sense that everyday life is political. People of different cultures and of different experiences within cultures bring different values to their art. You would think this would be obvious by now but it seems few in the U.S. really acknowledge it which is party why translation itself it still looked on with suspicion.” Do you still feel that translation work is underappreciated or even over-politicized?
I’ve been working in book publishing at New Directions since 2000, and I think a lot of people would agree that in the last decade or so literary translation has really grown in the US. It’s still greeted in some circles with suspicion, even in the academic world, but some people even call it a renaissance of literary translation because there are so many more presses that are doing translation, more translators working with a wider range of languages. And then the National Book Award just started a translation prize as one of their categories, so that’s interesting! The joke, or injustice, among translators used to be that no one really knew who the translator of a particular book was because you really had to study the copyright page, if that, to find it. I think that’s changed now, for the most part.
Still, a lot of what gets translated and what gets published in translation is connected to the political sphere. Ten or so years ago, I was at a translation conference, ALTA, and someone asked a question about Arabic literature. A translator, I think it was Marian Schwartz, who has translated Russian literature for many years, described how it was more difficult for her to find support for projects to translate as the Cold War was over and more Russian departments shrunk, while interest in Arabic literature was on the rise, due to the US invasion of Iraq. It’s a weird phenomenon. I mean, suddenly a lot of FBI agents started to study Arabic! While at the same time there really has been more translators bringing Arabic literature into English. There always was some, but much less and those books were usually published by a university press.
There’s a ton of amazing literary translation happening right now, and a lot more opportunities for translators to have things published. I know it’s still hard; ninety percent of the time you’re not going to be able to make a living doing literary translation, unlike in some other countries, but it’s changed a lot.
Last question: what book should I buy from Marfa Book Company while I’m in town today?
There’s a lot of good stuff! I’ll tell you about one book that I wanted for myself, but the funny thing is, I was looking at it a week ago and then when I went back to buy it, it was too late as a woman had bought both copies earlier the same day. It’s called The White Shaman Mural, by Carolyn Boyd—it’s about the rock art along the Pecos River. Boyd was an artist who became interested in this particular rock mural and ended up getting an archaeology degree and working on the book for many years.
I’m fascinated by stuff like this and would have loved to have gotten a degree in ethnomusicology or something like that. I love writing about things that I know little or nothing about so that I can learn about them; and in turn often unexpected connections open up through writing about them. It’s like trying to bridge disciplines that aren’t necessarily seen as creative professions, linking them through how we live and think.
Jeffrey Yang is the author of Hey, Marfa; Vanishing-Line; and An Aquarium, winner of the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. He is the translator of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo’s June Fourth Elegies. Yang lives in Beacon, New York.
Jaimie Li is a writer living in the greater Seattle, El Paso, and Los Angeles areas. She is at work on her first novel, Starfish.