What Sparks Poetry

Translation

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. 

In our series focused on Translation, we invite poet-translators to share seminal experiences in their practices, bringing poems from one language into another. How does the work of translating feel essential to the writing of one’s own poetry? Our contributors reflect on inspiring moments as intricate as a grammatical quirk and as wide-ranging as the history or politics of another place. 

“Explore What Sparks Poetry” is made possible with funding from The Virginia Commission for the Arts.

"Rainbow" performs a demonstration of Soffici's manifesto for renewal, both urging the artist to wake up, revive, and take their place at the center of things, like a wizard or an alchemist, and doing so himself with the poem. Poets, like painters, he shows us, would need new techniques to respond to this radically new century. But rather than the aggressive techniques the Futurists advocated—the violent imagery and bombastic declarations designed to wrench Italy into the new century by force—Soffici chose color and expressive typography to reproduce the vibrancy, disorientation, and sensory overload of early twentieth-century life.

Catch Up on Issues of What Sparks Poetry

"Rainbow" performs a demonstration of Soffici's manifesto for renewal, both urging the artist to wake up, revive, and take their place at the center of things, like a wizard or an alchemist, and doing so himself with the poem. Poets, like painters, he shows us, would need new techniques to respond to this radically new century. But rather than the aggressive techniques the Futurists advocated—the violent imagery and bombastic declarations designed to wrench Italy into the new century by force—Soffici chose color and expressive typography to reproduce the vibrancy, disorientation, and sensory overload of early twentieth-century life.

Publication Date

Series

The plan was Sébastien’s, inspired tangentially by the so-called “torture test” that Olivier Cadiot and Pierre Alferi had devised, which involved translating Robert Duncan’s falconer-mother back and forth between English and French, so the original would bloom anew through its successive degradations. We posted a slide of a single poem from chapter 2, “the cow,” showing the French on the left, my provisional American English at right.

Publication Date

Series

Though Šalamun would leave the interview format behind, he continued to ask many questions in his work, sometimes building poems upon a series of questions, as in the poem featured here. Although the title, “Sutra,” implies the imparting of wisdom or knowledge, Šalamun was more interested in the interplay between the questions and answers than in satisfying the expectations of a conventional sutra.

Publication Date

Series

Bea has been described as “a poet of silence, of everything unsaid which is suggested through language,” and translating these poems opened my eyes to the immense possibilities of brevity, inspiring me to begin a book-length project in small bursts. How Dark My Skin Is Left by Her Shadow taught me the strength of distillation, how intensity rises, and pressure builds when a substance is compressed.

Publication Date

Series

What triggers one to translate is ultimately the same as what triggers one to write;
I would say translating is an act of reading a poem for the first time, twice.
What the world is to the poet, the original text must seem to the translator, herein the hope, & the despair.

Publication Date

Series

The Dragonfly, an early work of Rosselli’s (1958) is a unique text of reverberating adaptions and deformations that harbingers our contemporary embrace of writing as rewriting and also correctly intuits in the Rimbaud assemblage the great solitude that so often visited this great poet.

Publication Date

Series

Our tactic for depicting the memories in Yam Gong’s poem is found in a good deal of English verse, and has been called “the tense of timelessness” or “lyric tense.” Emily Dickinson provides a good example: “I see thee better—in the dark—.” But Yam Gong’s speaker does not remain in an idealized state of timelessness: he returns to the present (“don’t look in the mirror much anymore”), and the last lines imply that he’s learned something from life, perhaps something unwelcome.

Publication Date

Series

In “A Fear Growing in My Heart,” the speaker fears her oncoming death, finds it ridiculous and sad that while there is silk around her now, there will be none in the grave. But then the speaker says to herself, “your limbs are like limbs carved/from ivory.” This simile speech act not only quells her fear, but also saves her from dying. By transforming herself in words into something fashioned from the materials of another creature, she saves herself.

Publication Date

Series

The dead dog on the beach at high noon. The hole of flesh. The hole in which all other words have been buried. I lived with these images and tried to let them suffuse the soul and the spirit of this translation, while also allowing the soul and the spirit of The Loose Pearl to suffuse and affect me.

Publication Date

Series

Reading the poem I was given, ‘The Enduring One’, I sensed a flavour of the Old Testament books of Genesis and Proverbs, of Norse sagas, of the Finnish Origin stories as told in the Kalevala. There was the same sensual lyricism, the fabulous nature of the tales and the sheer urgency of telling. Also the sense of long kinship, the importance of genealogy and the need to remember, especially heroic forebears.

Publication Date

Series

And the fate of identity, our fate at the end of life, is also landscape in Chinese poetry, as when T’ao Ch’ien says in the fourth century: “Once you’re dead and gone, what then? Trust yourself to the mountainside. It will take you in.” Or indeed, as modern astronomy and cosmology has taught us, with its birth and death of stars and planets like ours, our fate is ultimately out there in the cosmos— a fact Li Po sensed beautifully in his “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon,” a poem about drinking wine here in the Milky Way, which the Chinese call the Star River.  

Publication Date

Series

What I recognized in “Verse” when I first read it were the characteristics I enumerated in my brief essay on Julia’s work for Asymptote: humility, a childlike originality of vision, and profound empathy. Here she extends her empathy to her art, personified as a singular muse–not Calliope with a tablet or Erato crowned with myrtle, but a “moon-white bull.”

Publication Date

Series

Although the source text of “After All the Birds Have Gone” is in the present tense, its frame of reference is of survival, invoking the past, while the implied conditional hints at the future. I chose to translate it into English’s simple present tense, but I first wrote and rewrote it into various tenses, shapes, and sounds, finding them each true in their way. Like my private, convertible self-narrativizing, this poem’s translation is a generative action. Confronted by constant and various potential mortalities, tense is both irrelevant and fragile.

Publication Date

Series

Bancquart’s poems are spare, grounded, and, for all their attention to demise, surprisingly light.  Just the thing for a pandemic.  This poem with its “lost empires” and “catastrophes” counterbalanced by a shrinking soap bar seemed particularly suited to the moment.  I was struck by Bancquart’s vertiginous shifts in scope/scale, producing the same effect they do in cartoons—making us laugh.  

Publication Date

Series

This tactility relates to yet another thing I love about this poem: the tangibility, the extremely object-based nature of its objective correlative. Touching real vellum makes you think: what else might lurk here? Prayer book not only as transmitter of the holy word, the rites and rituals we use in hopes of getting closer to God, but also as a transmitter of, well, fingerprints. Germs. The actual physical residue of the lives of our predecessors, of those who have “handled, embraced, kissed” these artifacts before we came along.

Publication Date

Series