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The Mystical and the Bewildering: An interview with Barbara Siegel Carlson and Ewa Chrusciel

I’m delighted to interview Barbara Siegel Carlson and Ewa Chrusciel in celebration of their recently published new books, What Drifted Here and Yours, Purple Gallinule, respectively.

In addition to being two poets I greatly admire, Carlson and Chrusciel are internationally respected translators as well as esteemed editors of Solstice’s Poetry in Translation.

DO:  Writing reveals things to us we didn’t know before. Both of your books draw me to unique lyrical imaginations. Barbara, I feel the speaker’s presence directing me to intimate tonalities of silence within us and in the world. Ewa, I’m captivated by your quirky and wise hypothetical realities, your wit and humor.

Can each of you tell us a bit about the process of finding your theme/subject?  What, if anything, has been revealed about your poetic voice through the course of writing your book?

BC:  My theme comes out of something that first captures my attention and captivates my imagination, often beginning with an image or observation while outside on my daily walk, after some early morning reading. The hundreds of spiderwebs around the pond on an early morning walk give me a sense of wonder. So does a blowing leaf. It could be a glint, a shadow in an unsuspecting place, something askew, crumbs sparkling, village or church bells, the call of a mourning dove or geese sounding overhead, or a person looking out a window. Walking around the Hermitage in St Petersburg or walking those city streets, feeling a sense of the magnificence of the architecture and wealth juxtaposed with the horrors that city has endured throughout history, especially during the Stalinist purges and Nine-hundred Day Siege during WWII, made me want to investigate the different layers and liminal spaces. History leaves traces in every space as well as in our bones. It brings me to my knees with its powerful residue. And somehow those emotions I feel can surface through the language of the poem, if I’m lucky enough.

As far as what has been revealed about my poetic voice, it’s hard for me to say. When I feel inspired the poem comes out almost a trance-like state as a sketch, and then I let it sit for maybe a day or two. Often I go back to it obsessively, but sometimes I just let it sit for a few days, or possibly even years. At some point I may return to it to see if there’s still energy there, and if the initial impulse is still strong, I write draft after draft almost probing to locate the heart of it. At some point I feel myself breaking through to another level, almost as though I’ve been able to channel the energy from wherever the subject came from. The language leads to a further understanding. Sometimes it is revealed to me in a final image that literally seems to come out of the air. I’m stunned by it every time. That’s when the poem feels done. I must reach a certain consciousness through the language and images to see the potential unfold, and then, as Robert Frost says, the poem “rides on its own melting.” Whatever voice flows out there doesn’t feel like mine—it’s coming from a higher source I’ve learned to trust and feel immense gratitude for.

EC:  The outbreak of Covid and the Sabbatical converged together into being stuck at home for half a year. This is how I started birdwatching as well as read DSM-5 psychiatric manual. Hence, the idea of diagnosing and misdiagnosing birds transpired.

I wanted to dwell in bewilderment and reconcile the irreconcilable. How can you pathologize and pinpoint something so ineffable, evanescent, and unique as avian species? On the same note, we live in a culture that is constantly offering to fix us, or, even worse – coerces us to be fixed. The area of eugenics and forced sterilizations is seemingly over, and yet we are being sterilized metaphorically speaking. We are not free.

Growing up in Poland, I was taught to stigmatize mental illness. I internalized Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Advertisement,” where a psychiatric pill speaks like the devil and entices a human to sell her soul to pharmaceuticals.

When I moved to the United States, I began to understand how crucial psychiatric medications can be in saving people’s lives. Yet even here, mental illness is often stigmatized through hyper-classification. T.S. Eliot expresses this in “Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock” by the image of eyes which pigeonhole a human being until it is pinned and wriggling on the wall like a captured butterfly.

In my book, birds evade the anthropomorphization of psychiatrists and of poets. Thus, the anthropomorphization goes in reverse, and the human being becomes “other,” more avian. Like Noah’s dove, it proclaims a new covenant, with a twig in its beak and a message: “We are all mad; some more than others, but no one is spared the affliction. And the madder we are, the more sacred.”

That’s where my poetic voice currently resides.

DO:  Your books have received excellent critical praise. Barbara, Jennifer Barber (The Sliding Boat our Bodies Made/Founding Editor, Salamander) observes: “The lines of Barbara Siegel Carlson’s poems are like the filaments that Walt Whitman’s ‘noiseless patient spider’ launches out of itself. Flung across time and space into the silence, Carlson’s lines catch, in their ‘fine netting,’ the lonely truths of the inward self.”

Ewa, Katie Peterson (Life in a Field) writes: Yours, Purple Gallinule is both light and dark, comedy and tragedy, agile at both: what Robert Frost would call “play for mortal stakes.”

Both Barber and Peterson align your poetry with a certain American poetic tradition. Have these writers been an influence on your poetry?  If so, how?  What writers, contemporary or other, do you draw inspiration from and what attracts you to their work?

BC: I love Walt Whitman for his mysticism, earthiness, expansiveness, democratic larger-than-life spirit. I’m also drawn to Emily Dickinson because she works in much the opposite way. Her poems are so compressed, enigmatic, and yet as profound and spacious. Some other poetic guides: WS Merwin, Jean Valentine and the French poet Jean Follain, attract me to their mystery, paradox, divinity expressed with grace and economy. Follain rarely writes in the first person. I like that his gaze is outward to go inward, into a larger sense of time. The poems too are self-portraits that encompass history in a single moment. This paradox of time as timeless is something contained in their visionary work, as well as intimate connection to otherness. They are attuned and identify through their plain-spoken language what is strange, silent, mysterious, passionate, and vital to existence. They are love poets who connect in a compelling way to the oneness of humanity and the universe. I feel a kinship to their way of attunement, and it makes me want to write and seek that out too.

EC:  My writing has been rooted in Polish imagination; in poems of Miłosz, Herbert, Zagajewski, Różycki, Miłobędzka, Gombrowicz, etc.

The American influences are even more eclectic: Dickinson, George Herbert, Jorie Graham, Lynn Hejinian, Mary Ruefle, Fanny Howe, Ilya Kaminsky, Wallace Stevens, George Oppen.

I read to be astonished, disoriented, challenged, wounded.

I believe writing begins in wonder. Wonder is demanding; it comes at a cost. It can be disorienting; it can be wounding. Perhaps, the term “bewilderment” better conveys the discomfort of the writing process. One of my favorite contemporary poets, Fanny Howe, defines “bewilderment” as a loss of one’s sense of where one is. As Howe writes, “Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability. It cracks open the dialectic and sees myriads all at once.” It is resolving the irresolvable. Howe quotes a Muslim prayer: “Lord, increase my bewilderment.”

DO:  For every poem we write, we often imagine a receptive reader or listener.  Has that imaginary reader/listener changed over the course of years and publications, and if so, how?

BC:  My imaginary reader is my larger self, open to new perspectives or understanding something in a deeper, larger, or other way at the heart, and one who is receptive to an experience of reality through language, not seeking answers, but perhaps a heightened seeing. I must trust my reader to go where the language leads and to enter the vision that the poem presents. And be comfortable with being in a place that in Wallace Stevens’s words “almost resists the intelligence,” a place that they feel awed by, even though they don’t quite know why or how. I have greater faith than I used to that my reader is sensitive and intuitive, so I can leave more unsaid between the words.

EC:  I imagine a brave and humble reader full of wonder; open to new vistas; open to self-criticism, open to be wounded and bedazzled. Open enough to diversity to give me his/her private Pushcart or Pulitzer nomination or Green Lizard Prize.

DO:  Do you have a favorite story to share regarding a surprise reading or interpretation of one of your works?

BC: Yes. A few years ago, Patti Smith read my co-translator Ana Jelnikar’s and my translation from the Slovenian of a Srečko Kosovel poem at her concert in Trieste. Ana sent me the video. The poem Smith read is called “A Small Coat.” She had been given the little book called Open that we had recently completed. A friend of mine who lives in Trieste just happened to be at the concert and had been to our book launch for the book a few months earlier. She also told me about it. The poem begins, “I would like to walk around/ in a small coat of/ words.” It’s one of my favorite Kosovel poems. Just hearing Smith read it to a large and captive audience, knowing how it went out to so many people that day was thrilling—to see how poetry—its light and energy can be spread.

EC:  I think one of the most endearing encounters I had was with students from various colleges or universities who read my work in their creative writing or lit classes. For example, a Harvard student approached me once and informed me my book was being taught in the class he was taking at Harvard. Another favorite story is when a student from Wisconsin U wrote to me saying she was presenting on one of my books and had a question for me. Then, she proceeded to ask me who the recipient of my autograph was on the first page (she purchased it second-hand on Amazon). And this is how I discovered my ex got rid of one of my books.

DO:  A favorite quotation by Canadian poet and novelist Anne Michaels states: “The poet moves from life to language, the translator moves from language to life; both like the immigrant, try to identify the invisible, what’s between the lines, the mysterious implications.”  In addition to being acclaimed poets, you are both accomplished, published translators—Barbara from the Slovenian, Ewa, from the Polish.  In your work as poets and translators, what, if anything, constitutes the “invisible” that you try to identify?   After you translate a particular poet, does it influence how you approach writing your own poems?

BC:  I love that quote, how it circles back to life. That is always what I am striving for in both my own work and in translation. From unsayable keenly felt experience to language and then back through language that somehow distills and infuses the experience to something further and deeper that resonates at the heart. In this way, a poet is an alchemist transmuting language to soul nourishment. Through language you return to the place beyond language—the invisible a current drawn from the language, and how its images and music work in concert to create its unique living form. When I sense these connections, I give myself over to it, enter another’s energy field that pulls me in—I’m then entangled in the poem, and in trying to decipher more and more finely I come to an opening, a new way of understanding or perceiving. In finding my way to the vision of the poem I am inside that poet’s style and way of expressing. Their manner of speaking, their sentence structure, even sentence length, influences my work in ways I’m not always consciously aware of. I’m probably an amalgam of all the writers I admire, but in time, what isn’t authentic to me or natural to my manner falls away. But translating stretches my own possibilities and conceptions of what constitutes a poem.

EC:  Translating from both languages and writing in two languages creates bewilderment for us and for our readers. It transports us to new places. Perhaps writing poems is always an experience of translation which in a theological meaning means mi­gration, if not exile. It is, after all, a way of being in two places at once. The price is communing with dybbuks. The price is the contraband. Writing in English is the work of smuggling metaphors from one language into another. It is a work of mistranslation.

The price is the ceaseless border crossing, a constant mental shifting and shuffling between the two languages, between these two different conceptualizations of the world. Language is never sufficient. It hurts us into vision.

DO:  As editors of our Poetry in Translation series, you carry the responsibility of selecting and preserving diverse voices and other cultures. What qualities in a translation do you look for to be engaged and to believe the speaker?

BC: The best poem in the original can fall flat if the translator has no sense of how the interplay of the language you are translating into creates and animates the poem so that it contains the spirit of the original. A good translator is a kind of a channeler, and a successful translation contains an authentic experience of the vision put forth by the original poet.

As an editor of PIT, I look for what a poetry editor looks for: freshness of language and vision, sharpness of imagery, verbal music, concision, and a discovered sense. I look to be moved to a different level of awareness. I look to be chilled and heated at the same time.

A good translation captures as closely as possible the intention, tone, and spirit of the original. It isn’t essential for the translator to be fluent in the language they are translating from. I do think they need to work with someone they trust who is a native speaker or fluent in the original language. The translator should not rewrite the poem in their style and if I am to believe the speaker, especially if the poet is famous as Neruda or Rilke, this new translation should feel not only authentic, alive and fresh, but aligned as closely as possible with that poet’s style and sensibility as I perceive them to be.  It’s important to submerge the ego, not only to absorb the nuances of the original, but to get a sense of the reality and style out of which that poet composed the work.

EC:  I look for wonder and bewilderment, I want to be disoriented and lost when reading translations, not just reassured. I want to be transported.

DO:  Are currently you working on any new poetry or translation projects, or both?  

BC:  I’m involved in a few projects right now. My co-translator Ana Jelnikar and I are hoping to finish a manuscript of Selected Poems by the Slovenian poet Meta Kusar in the coming year. I’m also working with another Slovenian poet Miriam Drev, translating a selection of prose poems from her recent collection called Ancestral Healing. Many of these poems were inspired by experiences of Miriam’s family members and ancestors who suffered in the last century’s wars. We hope to have a book of these translations at some point in the near future. Aside from the above projects I’m just beginning to organize a new manuscript of my own poems.

EC:  Recently I read an interview with Jorie Graham in the New Yorker and would like to co-translate it with a fellow poet into Polish. I also would love to translate poems of Vievee Francis, Cleopatra Mathis, Fanny Howe, and so many others.

DO: Thank you, Barbara, and Ewa, for taking part in this interview. It’s been my great pleasure.  Let’s turn now to a poem from each collection.

Manifesto of the Crumbling Shed – Barbara Siegal Carlson

Before me is continually an empty space —Kierkegaard

The windows are cloudy, frames charred, roof drafty with leaves. Winter buds hard as bullets sway over. Who else hears the twigs quiver? Mahler walked through storms as a boy feeling their crashes, rhythms, and laments as if they were the notes of his own estranged soul under branches that crack as they reach toward the sky.

Maybe I’m just hungry for mystical connections. How to be boundless inside these webs, rusty tools, pots with the dirt still clinging, while I sink into the slope between house and swamp wondering where does the wild begin, how do my walls dry in the wind, how can the feather that landed on my threshold be understood.

A poem – Ewa Chrusciel                                                                 

A poem is a ravenous flock of snow buntings, an apocalypse of the air. Mad in its dazzlement. How did they get here? Prancing gleefully, feeding on a poem’s madness. At certain times they are flakes of snow – diamonds shimmering, all facets at once, migrant words flashing. Other times, they resemble giant bees, hungry for virgins and sinners, and too otherworldly for prose.
If the poem is a snow bunting? Winding, treacherous – you need to wrestle it like Jacob did the Angel. Its otherness will bless and wound.


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