DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Apr 24 2008

Interview with Poet Aaron Zaritzky

by Jimmy L

Aaron_sm
Aaron Zaritzky was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He graduated from the Creative Writing Workshop at Oberlin College (2000) and completed a Masters of Fine Arts in Poetry from the University of Arizona (2004). The Pulitzer Prize winning press BOA Editions published his book-length translation of Felipe Benítez Reyes’ Probable Lives as part of the Lannan Series. One of these poems, “Fears,” was chosen to represent a day in National Poetry Month. Nobel Prize finalist Miguel Mendez, the Kennedy Center, and others have commissioned him to translate work. He is currently ghostwriting a book for his father and lives in Macon, Georgia with his wife, Yosálida, their daughter, Sofía, and their cat, Humo.

Aaron, can you tell me how you became a poet? It seems like an odd thing to be!

It does seem like an odd thing to be. And how does someone become a poet? And what is a poet, anyway? Is everyone who writes poems a poet? If so, that means most everyone has been a poet at some time in their lives. Or is a poet someone who has poems published?

There are a whole lot of people out there who spend much more time making a living at something other than writing poems who are still called poets. I would venture to say that almost every poet, at least in this country, finds him or herself having to “write poems on the side.” That’s just the nature of the thing, I guess. So, to answer your question, I first became interested in writing poems when I was in middle school. One day, for no real reason, I decided to try to write a poem about spilling Cheerios all over the kitchen counter. I realized, as I was doing this, that there were so many interesting ways to put words together and that interesting language often has more to do with the words you choose than with the “meaning” or “story” behind the thing you are writing. After that, I just kept writing on my own.

You’ve translated poems before, including the book Probable Lives by Felipe Benítez Reyes. What made you translate this book? Did you pick it, or did it pick you? Did you work closely with the original author?

I was studying abroad in Madrid, Spain, my junior year of college. One of my professors introduced us to some poems from Felipe’s book. They really caught my interest. Each group of poems had its own distinct and fascinating voice. Since I needed to start a creative writing project the following semester as a requirement for my major, and since I didn’t want to return right away to the States, I decided to begin my translation of what’s now titled Probable Lives. Although the project proved more difficult than I ever imagined, I found myself so obsessed with the work that I just couldn’t put it down. During this time, I asked Felipe if he’d give me permission to try to create an English-language version of the book and he seemed quite enthusiastic. I didn’t really rely on him, though, until near the end of the translation process, when I had a couple of doubts about certain Spanish usages that I just couldn’t resolve.

Can you tell me a little bit about translation and how that is different or similar to writing your own poems?

Translation is very similar to writing poems in that the final result should be as resonant in the target language (English in this case) as it was in the source language (Spanish). So even if you know every word, say, in the Spanish language, you still won’t be able to translate a poem with any amount of success if you cannot write poems in your target language. That’s why often the worst poem translations you’ll find are by scholars who have written very little poetry or fiction. Some of the best English-language translations are by great English-language writers who may not even know the source language but who collaborate with someone who is bilingual.

In terms of the difference, I would say that translation is often easier to begin, because you already have something to work with. I often find myself staring at a blank page or scratching out each line I write. With translation, there’s already this poetic inertia that the translator can ride.

What are some of your favorite poems/poets?

I’m not so sure right now. I do love James Tate‘s later work, as well as Charles Simic. Louise Gluck‘s book The Wild Iris is amazing.

Outside of poetry, what are you reading lately? Any recommendations?

I just read Brenda Hillman’s book Cascadia. It was one of those collections that really gets me writing.

Are you working on something new?

Not so much right now. I finished a memoir that I ghostwrote for my father and we’re looking for an agent. I’ll probably read parts of it over again and make some final edits.

Thanks again Aaron!!!

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