Born and raised in Shanghai, China, Cissy Yun has been a TED Translator for five years now. She took on her first translation way back in 2013, and she’s since become one of TED’s Simplified Chinese Language Coordinators (LCs). Cissy moved to New York in 2016, where she currently studies media and communications at NYU. Given all of this, we thought it would make for an interesting and enlightening conversation to interview Cissy about her work with TED Translators and the Chinese translation community. Read on below!
What inspired you to join TED Translators?
I should start with my discovery of TED, when I was in seventh grade. The first TED Talk I ever watched was Marco Tempest’s “The magic of truth and lies (and iPods)”, which he delivered at TEDGlobal 2011. I was mesmerized by his use of then-contemporary technology to explain a number of visual illusions we occasionally experience, and from that point on I was hooked on TED Talks. Around the same time, I realized that my fluency in English could enable me to translate and share insightful talks with friends, family and colleagues who aren’t English speakers. And because I believe language should never be a barrier to the free exchange of ideas and knowledge, it was a no-brainer for me to join TED Translators and put my language skills to work translating TED Talks.
Since then, I must say, volunteering as a TED Translator has given me a tremendous amount of joy. I studied Spanish in high school, and when I watched and translated a talk called “Poetry, music and identity”, which Uruguayan musician and poet Jorge Drexler delivered at TED2017, I was brought to tears (it’s my favorite TED Talk by far). Needless to say, I was thrilled to contribute to spreading Drexler’s brilliance with my translation. I’ve had many other similar experiences in my five years as a TED Translator, and they’re what keep me going and why TED Translators has become an inextricable part of my life.
How do you put yourself in the shoes of a TED Speaker in order to best translate a talk?
First, I try to select talks on subjects about which I’m knowledgeable; I’d rather not butcher talks whose topics I’m unfamiliar with. That said, if I’m assigned a translation with a subject that’s out of my bailiwick, I don’t shy away from the research required to translate the talk. Next, I always watch each talk in its entirety before I begin translating it. I think it’s essential to study both a talk’s topic and its speaker in order to home in on the most accurate context for translation.
One of the most challenging translations I’ve completed offers a detailed picture of my process. I translated a five-minute talk about tornado tracking that, despite its brief duration, is packed with distinct nouns and tornado jargon. As a result, I researched the basic science of the storms, including reading several Chinese science journals to find the accurate argot, for seven hours before I started translating the talk; I basically became a mini-expert on tornadoes. It was quite a surreal (in a good way) experience for me, and the satisfaction I felt after I’d completed my translation was beyond words!
What are some of the benefits you’ve derived from being a TED Translator? You’ll be attending TEDSummit 2019 in July?
Having lived in the U.S. for a number of years now, I “breathe” English every day, so my work with TED Translators has increasingly allowed me to keep my Chinese polished. It’s also encouraged me to stay current with the ever-changing language culture back in China so I can make sure I’m using the most accurate, up-to-date vernacular in my translations.
In addition, I was invited to attend “We the Future” last September—an annual collaborative gathering put on by TED, the Skoll Foundation and the UN Foundation, and which takes place during each year’s UN General Assembly and Global Goals Week. “We the Future” was held at TED’s New York headquarters, and its primary focus was how we can build a sustainable future for humanity in the face of global warming and climate change. I had the amazing opportunity to both talk with some of the top experts in this field and connect with LCs and TED Translators from a variety of other language communities. What’s more, after “We the Future” wrapped up, I translated a few of the talks delivered at the event and got to relive a bunch of the day’s highlights.
And yes, I will attend TEDSummit 2019 this July. I’m really looking forward to what’s sure to be an incredible gathering in beautiful Edinburgh, and to meeting new and old friends alike!
Can you share with us some powerful ideas coming out of China? Which kinds of TED Talks have you noticed are popular in China?
I’ve recently seen a lot of TED Talks that deal in environmental issues circulating on Chinese social media—talks about green energy and preserving endangered animals, for example. Also, many teachers in China incorporate TED-Ed videos into their lesson plans; and new university graduates entering the workforce, I’ve noticed, are extremely interested in TED Talks that explore workplace relationships, social etiquette and identity formation.
As for powerful ideas emerging from China, the country has a vibrant TEDx—especially TEDxYouth—community. Tons of middle- and high-schoolers are engaged with TED and regularly delivering very thought-provoking talks that are tailored not just to Chinese audiences, but their respective local cultures and social structures as well. And these talks span a wide array of subjects, from public health to urbanization to gentrification to art and food (to name a few!).
Lastly, what advice do you have for new TED Translators?
To me, the most magical aspect of being a TED Translator is that you don’t necessarily have to take on difficult tasks alone; the TED Translators community is always within reach if you need help with a translation. So, my advice to new TED Translators would be: Don’t shy away from asking a fellow translator or an LC for a helping hand, if need be. And one more thing: Always remember that translating for TED is so much more than completing a task; it’s a continual learning experience and “therapeutic” craft and a one-of-a-kind opportunity to connect with other people all over the world who share your passion for translation.
TED2019 got underway last week, and a contingent of 15 TED Translators was on the ground from the start to represent and promote TED’s international translation community. In addition to attending talks by an impressive lineup of speakers who presented their innovative ideas and visions under the conference’s theme of “Bigger Than Us”, the TED Translators were busy with a schedule full of workshops and team-building events. Stay tuned for more in-depth updates on TED Translators’ activities at TED2019.
A few days after the TED Translators meetup in Mexico City, Jenny and Helena made their way over to Bogotá, Colombia, to attend TEDxBogotá: Resiliencia and to once more connect local TED Translators to TEDx initiatives in their city. TEDxBogotá brought together a stunning number of attendees—over 10,000!—at Bogotá’s famous Movistar Arena. The audience was treated to 10 speakers whose talks tackled some of Colombia’s most urgent challenges while also highlighting potential brighter futures for both the country and the region in general. What’s more, the TEDxBogotá team, headed by organizer Mauricio Salazar and co-organizer Katherin Gómez, warmly welcomed and embraced TED Translators; in fact, the TEDxBogotá team screened our most recent promo video for the crowd and invited attendees to volunteer with our global project. We hope you’re as excited as we are to see lots of new translations coming out of Bogotá soon!
Earlier this month, TED Translators director Jenny Zurawell and deputy director Helena Batt traveled to Mexico City to link up with several TED Translators from the region and connect them to local TEDx initiatives. The translators who attended were thrilled to meet each other in person and had the chance to speak with Marcela Garcia, a TEDx organizer based in Mexico City. Their discussion focused on building and strengthening the culturally dynamic city’s TED Translators community, as well as identifying the challenges and opportunities posed by this effort. All in all, the gathering was yet another productive step in growing TED Translators’ footprint in Latin America.
Since TED2019 is right around the corner, we’d like to introduce you to the TED Translators who will attend this year’s flagship conference. “Bigger Than Us” is TED2019’s theme, and we’ve invited some fantastic TED Translators from around the world to represent us at the gathering in Vancouver, BC. Read on to learn more about these extraordinary folks!
Seoul, South Korea, is where Seongjae makes his home and where he works as a software engineer. After studying computer engineering at university, he began his career as a fintech developer and, propelled by his fascination with cutting-edge technologies, utilized TED Talks to school himself on such advancements. At the same time, Seongjae also cultivated a deep interest in TED Talks which address sociocultural issues. He joined the TED Translator community in order to share far and wide the talks that inspire him, as well as to discover talks that animate his fellow translators.
Freelance translator Karin was born and raised in Ensenada, Mexico. Her passion for languages led her to study translation at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC), where she developed a keen interest in multimedia translation. After discovering TED Translators, she decided to join the community to polish her skills as a translator and to help others around the world gain access to one of humanity’s strongest tools: knowledge.
Born in Ekaterinburg, Russia, Tatiana now lives in Prague, where she studies English literature and linguistics, teaches English as a foreign language and works as a freelance translator. When not busy with these pursuits, she enjoys reading (especially experimental fiction and philosophy), as well as occasionally writing and drawing. Tatiana joined TED Translators in order to contribute to a global community that encourages and propels engaging dialogue across numerous disciplines and languages.
Talia was born and raised in Haifa, Israel, and she currently manages a team at a startup enterprise that’s working to implement a sharing economy in the country. In addition to volunteering with TED Translators, Talia has mentored at-risk youth, and she recently participated in a seminar organized by Tech2Peace, “an independent initiative, created and conducted by a young staff of students and volunteers” who put on “IT and peace-building seminars, focused on creating a lasting positive relationship between young Israelis and Palestinians.” Since Tech2Peace, Talia has been studying 3D animation; she aims to use the technology to help improve her community.
Originally from Romania, Bianca has spent much of the last decade living, studying and working in various parts of the world, including China, India and the U.K. She credits her time in these three countries especially for introducing her to an array of new ways of thinking and living. In a similar vein, Bianca credits TED and TED Translators for revealing “a whole new world of ideas” to her—ideas she’s committed to making widely accessible to Romanian speakers who are not familiar with English. “What I also love about TED Translators,” she says, “is getting ‘lost in translation’—or perhaps ‘lost in reviews and approvals’ is more appropriate—particularly with management- and psychology-related TED Talks.” Bianca recently completed her master’s degree in HR management from Leeds University Business School, and she is about to begin pursuing her PhD in the study of the emergence of new forms of work in the digital economy.
Translator + subtitler Carolina makes her home in São Paulo, Brazil, along with her husband and their 6-year-old daughter. She’s had an intense interest in languages—particularly English—from an early age, but it wasn’t until she discovered TED and TED Translators that Carolina realized her passion for translating and subtitling too. This discovery also inspired her to switch her profession from law to full-time translation, and Carolina says she’s much more satisfied by her current work; she especially loves helping to spread the incredible ideas put forth in TED Talks around the world. When she’s not translating, Carolina enjoys the company of her family and friends, reading, watching TV, and traveling.
Ly was born and raised in Vietnam, and she’s currently finishing her studies in architecture at Hanoi Architectural University. In addition to her fascination for the aesthetics of words in both the design and calligraphy mediums, Ly “loves languages and translation”; hence her work with TED Translators. What’s more, she was so motivated by the reach and influence of TED Talks that she co-founded the Vietnam Organization for Gender Equality (VOGE), a project that “aims at spreading the ‘Gender is not a limit’ spirit [and] helping to build a human, equitable and civilized community in terms of gender.”
Hailing from eastern China, Jinchuan is now a student in economics and commerce at the University of Adelaide in Australia. He’s been both a TED Translator and involved with various TED and TEDx conferences for five years and counting. Jinchuan has also studied abroad in the U.S., at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
By way of India, Urjoshi is currently a PhD student in computer science and a graduate teaching assistant at Iowa State University. Her research is based in software engineering and focuses on testing highly configurable systems. Before beginning her post-graduate studies, Urjoshi worked for nearly four years as a systems engineer at Tata Consultancy Services. She cites her dedication to minimizing impediments to the free dissemination of knowledge as one of the key factors that inspired her to join TED Translators. Outside of studying, teaching and translating, Urjoshi practices yoga and can’t get enough of hiking and reading.
Frank was born and raised in Lima, Peru, and holds a degree in oil and gas engineering from Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. He is currently a process safety manager for pipeline transportation for an oil and gas company in both Peru and Mexico. Frank’s TED Translators epiphany occurred after he watched his first TED Talk, Pranav Mistry’s “The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology”: “It was then when I realized how amazing it is to have free access to such stimulating information, as well as the importance of transmitting these ideas to as large of an audience as possible, regardless of borders, customs or beliefs,” he says. “And so I began volunteering with TED Translators.” Frank also loves to travel and interact with new people and cultures, and he finds that this dovetails nicely with his translation work for TED.
Originally from Japan, Moe has lived in Sheffield, England, for the last seven years while she’s pursued her PhD in theatre and performance studies. She also holds a master’s degree in the same field, in addition to degrees in both French and English literature. Moe’s PhD thesis centers on paratexts—which she describes as “those peripheral elements that lie at the thresholds of interpretation but give texts a unity, such as prefaces, intertitles, notes and appendices”—and their significance in terms of making meaning in contemporary performance work. Regarding TED Translators, Moe says that translating is “very much intertwined with my PhD studies—so much so that my first submitted thesis contains this acknowledgment: ‘I would also like to say thanks to TED Translators, which has been a productive procrastination for me to engage with whenever I find myself in a writing cul-de-sac.’” Thus her prolificness as a TED Translator. Aside from studying and translating, Moe teaches Japanese, is an aspiring literary translator, and writes tanka.
After finishing school in her home country of Germany, Tanja relocated to Argentina for a year to teach German. She then moved to Edinburgh and earned her bachelor’s degree in cognitive science. Tanja now lives in London, where she’s pursuing her PhD in computer science. She joined TED Translators in 2012 to, in her words, “help make TED content more widely accessible, and to have a productive way of procrastinating.” In her free time, Tanja enjoys writing and playing music, reading, films and running.
Jules was born and raised in France’s Brittany region, but he currently resides in Paris and works as a technology developer for a startup enterprise focused on creating innovative open-source development tools. Jules has also lived in Moscow, where he attended Moscow State University. In addition, he earned master’s degrees from both Sciences Po and Sorbonne University, two of France’s most prestigious universities. Jules’ passion for technology is matched by his deep interest in other cultures, and he attributes this combination to his decision to join TED Translators. “I love being part of a global community in which I can introduce extraordinary new ideas to French speakers around the world,” he says. When not working and translating, Jules can be found skiing or swimming.
Milan, Italy, is where Silvia makes her home, and it’s also where she earned her master’s degree in foreign languages and literatures (English and French) from the University of Milan. She is currently a sales manager for several Italian and multinational companies, and also works as a freelance translator. About her experience with TED Translators, Silvia says: “TED Translators has made me realize how amazing and rewarding it is to help spread powerful and inspiring ideas to people all across the world who don’t speak a second language—particularly since I strongly believe that communication brings people together more than anything else.” In her free time, Silvia enjoys baking cakes, reading, traveling, and live theatre (especially Shakespeare).
By way of Tehran, Iran, where she obtained her bachelor of sciences degree in Physics from the University of Tehran, Saba now resides in New York City. She initially moved to New York to earn her master’s degrees in both economics and business administration; afterward, Saba began her current job as a data analyst at a financial institution. As a bilingual speaker and a fervent believer in education and the free exchange of knowledge, she’s found a natural home at TED Translators. Saba’s hobbies include hiking and music, and she cites human communications, society improvement, and data and technology (including how they affect our daily lives) as her primary areas of interest.
Editor’s note: The three TED Translators below were invited to TED2019, but—we’re sorry to have to report—they will not be able to attend because their travel visas were denied by the Canadian government.
Sameeha hails from Nablus, Palestine, holds a bachelor’s degree in medical analysis, and currently works as an embryologist. She also plans to pursue a degree in the field of genetics research. Sameeha is a staunch believer in Mahatma Gandhi’s maxim “Be the change you wish to see in the world”, and she credits these words for her decision to join TED Translators. “I always try to take any opportunity I can to change our world for the better,” Sameeha says. “When I discovered TED Translators, I realized I’d found an excellent way to put Gandhi’s words into action: I could help spread important ideas and knowledge across languages and borders, while at the same time increasing the amount Arabic content available online.” In her free time, Sameeha enjoys hiking and reading.
Masoud hails from the historic Iranian city of Bam, which is known for its ancient mud-wall citadel. He holds master’s degrees in both translation studies and business management, and he currently works as a translator and an office coordinator at a holding company in Iran. Masoud’s passion for learning and sharing insightful knowledge and content is what led him to join TED Translators. “I wholeheartedly believe that translating and spreading powerful ideas as far and wide as possible can effect substantive change in the world,” he says. When not busy working and translating, Masoud enjoys traveling and immersing himself in different cultures.
Born and raised in Armenia, Grigor is a graduate of the French University in Armenia, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in management. In 2015, he founded United Youth Union, an Armenia-based “non-profit organization committed to youth development and empowerment.” Grigor led UYU for two years before going on to found and lead another NGO in his home country called Youth for Change, which focuses on civil society development. (He now serves as UYU’s chairman.) He’s currently a Youth Program Officer at OxYGen as well. Grigor has also been prolific in his involvement with TED: In addition to his work as a TED Translator, he has been a member of TEDxYerevan’s organizing team since 2016, and he was previously the lead organizer of TEDxUFAR.
So, I have a few follow-up questions to your last answer, but I was just hit out of nowhere (or maybe not: I’m listening to music through my earbuds at a bar as I write this) with a different question to ask first. Here goes…
It’s clear from reading your whole body of poetry—and individual collections like “Speak Low”, “Double Shadow” and “Wild Is the Wind”, for example—that music influences and is braided into your poems to varying degrees. Whom have you been listening to lately who’s possibly seeping into your current writing?
Also, here’s a song I’ve had on repeat for a little while now; to my mind it could be part of a soundtrack to “Wild Is the Wind”—especially those poems that seem to prize the wilderness over restraint. I’m curious what this song evokes for you.
A music question—I love it! Yeah, I listen to music all the time, it’s been a huge part of my life, and I sometimes think I came to poetry through music first, being a longtime fan of the singer-songwriter tradition—Carole King, James Taylor, etc. Though I listen to a pretty wide range of things these days: Currently in rotation are The Charlatans, Robyn, Janelle Monáe, The Innocence Mission. I’ve been returning to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” a lot, as well as Sarah Vaughan’s album that she did with Clifford Brown. I’m not sure to what extent music seeps into the writing, but I do find myself sometimes wanting to write a poem that gets at the emotional gesture of a certain song that’s in my head; this happened recently with a Charlatans song, an instrumental piece called “Honesty”.
It’s hard for me to imagine the Conor Oberst song as part of a soundtrack for “Wild Is the Wind”, if only because I find his voice is too close to Dylan’s, which always makes me want to leave the room! But I take your point about wilderness and restraint; that song definitely gets at the idea that people aren’t easily tameable into what another person expects or wants; and toward the end, it gets at the idea of self-loathing and raises the question, for me, as to whether wilderness is its own thing, or is a manifestation of something else, inside, that may not be known or even knowable to ourselves.
It’s true: Oberst’s voice is quite similar to Dylan’s, and some people do find it too abrasive or his lyrics too heart-on-sleeve. But for me, Oberst’s music, particularly songs like “No One Changes”, brings to mind what the poet Michael S. Harper said in an interview about writing poetry (though I think his advice applies to the creation of most, if not all, art): “[D]on’t fear being too personal, too idiosyncratic, too bizarre, too (Monk) ‘straight, no chaser…’” And this in turn reminds me of your “Postcard: Advice to a Young Poet” (which, I must tell you, has continued to be invaluable guidance for me since I first read it roughly five years ago). So, as both a university professor and the Yale series judge, what are some fundamental “lessons” that you try to impart to the emerging poets you work with? Does any of your teaching or judging involve the negotiation between wilderness and restraint that we talked about earlier?
I had forgotten all about that postcard! I think what I say there pretty much answers your first question. The fundamental lesson I try to impart is that you should write what you have to write, regardless of outside expectations. The one unique thing we can bring to a poem is our own sensibility; to compromise that makes for inauthentic poetry. As for wilderness versus restraint, I believe what’s important is a careful calibration between the two, when it comes to making a poem that is athletic, physical, visceral. Too many poets are afraid of wilderness, and tend to make poems that are polite, give no real offense, but ultimately also fail to yield much personality. That’s my biggest challenge as a judge of poetry: manuscripts that do no harm, that merely behave. As with people, that makes for an uninteresting manuscript.
Who are some young or emerging poets you’ve been reading lately whose poems you think achieve that careful calibration between wilderness and restraint?
Well, it would be easiest to point to Yanyi, whose manuscript I selected for the Yale series last year; that book, “The Year of Blue Water”, will be out this spring. I also loved a book called “Three Poems”, by Hannah Sullivan, a book that dares to consist of three long poems, that’s it! (Editor’s note: “Three Poems” was awarded the 2018 T.S. Eliot Prize on January 15 of this year.)Catherine Barnett’s “Human Hours” and Diane Seuss’ “Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl” are two books from 2018 that I am continuing to learn so much from. I note that these last two poets aren’t what some people would call young or emerging, since they are over 30 and they have previous books. But I was just today saying on Twitter how the poets I most admire are the ones who never stop emerging; they keep surprising themselves, and their readers, by evolving in unexpected directions. I think that the older we get, the more experiences we accumulate, and experience is what gives us something new to wrestle with. I have gotten this sense that many younger poets are not interested in keeping up with writers who have been writing for what amounts to a long career. But Bob Hass, to give one example, is writing poems that are vastly different from where he began, and for me it’s thrilling to see how a poet keeps changing on the page even into old age. He is still writing work that we can all learn from.
I’ve also gotten the sense that younger poets aren’t interested in keeping up with writers who’ve had long careers, and I think it’s an attitude, if you will, that younger poets (myself included) should resist. There’s so much one can learn from reading, say, Chase Twichell’s body of work right up to her new collection—lessons in form, economy of language, risk, evolution—that to take the opposite stance seems to me a kind of self-deprivation in terms of evolving as a poet.
That said, Catherine Barnett is wonderful—as both a poet and person! She taught one of my craft courses in grad school and, funny enough, she had my class read Robert Hass’s collection “Time and Materials”. And Yanyi: I’m really looking forward to reading “The Year of Blue Water”; these three poems from the book are lacerating in so many ways. They also bring to mind your prose poems, which to me are more so prose poems with deliberate line breaks (in “Wild Is the Wind”, poems like “Courtship” and “Gold Leaf”, for example; or, one of my personal favorites, “The Jetty”, from “Silverchest”). What attracts you to this prose form? Why do you often break the lines in these poems as you do? And, when writing a poem, what might signal to you that a prose structure best suits the piece?
Hmmm… Well, I guess the first thing to make clear is that I have never written a prose poem. As you mention, there are line breaks, and the only absolute thing that can be said about prose poems is that they relinquish the line break and have to figure out how to make up for the absence of that particular tool. You can tell “The Jetty” isn’t a prose poem, for example, because the lines don’t go to the page’s margin; that means they’ve been deliberately broken, which means these are lines of poetry. Same with “Courtship” and “Gold Leaf”. These poems have long lines, but there are poems with much longer lines in the book, which shows that the margin goes beyond where it does in these two poems. Another way you can tell is if you compare the left and right margins: The left is flush left; if this were a prose poem, the right-hand margin would also be flush, meaning there would not be an unevenness to where the lines end at the right.
Not that I want to give you a lesson in the prose poem! But I have noticed—again, with younger writers—that there is confusion about the prose poem, so I hope in my small way to clear that up. I do have one poem in a forthcoming book, where one section is a poem, and the other section is a prose poem. That’ll be my first sort-of prose poem, I suppose, but even then it’s a hybrid. If it makes you feel better, a review of an earlier book of mine in The New Yorker went into a whole theory about a so-called prose poem in the book—when it wasn’t and isn’t a prose poem. LOL, as they say!
Ah, the clarification is much appreciated; let’s call it a valuable mini-lesson on the prose poem!
As we wrap up, I’d like to ask about your translation of Sophocles’ play “Philoctetes”. What drew you to translate this particular work? Do you regard translation as an integral part of writing poetry, as something all poets should try their hand at? And for those translators reading this, what do you believe goes into creating a successful translation?
Well, I wasn’t initially drawn to it. It’s part of a series that paired poets with translators (only in my case I already knew Greek, so I did the translating myself); I had wanted to do Euripides’ “The Bacchae”, but I was told that was taken, and I was assigned “Philoctetes”. As I revisited and really dug into the play, though, I realized that it’s the only all-male Greek tragedy that survives, and that there’s a certain homoerotic claustrophobia to the play. It also is more like a philosophical dialogue, in many ways, than a play: not a lot of actual action or plot, but a lot of invitation to meditate on trust, betrayal and duty—to oneself, to the state… So it ended up having a lot of intersections with my own work.
I don’t know that every poet needs to try translating, no. I think poetry would be a lot better if more poets knew other languages, and had access to other sensibilities than those that English carries with it. But I do think that all poetry is a form of translation, a translating of fleeting experience and perception into something briefly fixed.
As for what I think goes into creating a successful translation, I suppose it’s very important to try, as much as it’s possible, to really get inside the sensibility of the work being translated, and to try to keep one’s own sensibility out of it. None of this is entirely possible, of course. But when people read my translation, I want them to feel they are getting what Sophocles intended, not what Carl Phillips thinks he intended. I do think that my style seeped into my translation—how could it not?—but as it happens, a lot of my style seems to have been shaped by my having studied ancient Greek, so in that sense there was a good fit. What I don’t like to see in translations is contemporization of old texts, even though I know that’s popular with many. But if someone is only going to read, say, one translation of Virgil’s “Georgics”, I don’t want it to take place in contemporary rural Iowa. Having said that, I do think Derek Walcott did something pretty masterful when he translated the “Odyssey” into a Caribbean setting, with “Omeros”.
Finally, what project(s) are you currently working on? You mentioned a forthcoming book of poetry; can you tell us about that?
This fall, I have a chapbook—my first ever deliberate chapbook—coming out from Sibling Rivalry Press. It’s called “Star Map with Action Figures”, and consists of 16 poems that I wrote last summer in a kind of flurry. They’re a little different, in that they ghost a more traditional narrative, I suppose, though in the end that narrative isn’t entirely revealed. The poems came out of a little emotional storm that has since passed elsewhere, as storms do. I don’t know if these poems will be in a future book or not.
Meanwhile, I have a regular book of poems, “Pale Colors in a Tall Field”, out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the spring of 2020. It’s always hard for me to say what my books are “about,” but if I have to do so, this book seems to look at how to accept the weight of memory, to resist memory’s ability to harden us to anything new— when it comes to risk—and to take the risk, again, of making a life with another person. Which is to say, the book continues the ongoing, ever-shifting meditation I’ve been involved with, all these years: How do we live? How do we know who we are or should be? How to love another without compromising the self? The usual easy questions that a life comes down to.
Toward the end of last year, we introduced and highlightedTED-Ed’s then-new animated poetry series, “There’s a poem for that”. The first installment features Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo reading her poem “To Make Use of Water” while animation with the texture of water, or perhaps watery memory, mirrors the poem’s movements. Afterward, there’s a brief interview with Elhillo in which she is asked: “What is a poem you think everyone should experience?” Her unequivocal answer is Carl Phillips’ poem “Blue”.
Around this time, I had just finished reading Phillips’ most recent poetry collection, “Wild Is the Wind”, his 14th volume in an output that’s spanned over 25 years and garnered more literary awards than could possibly be listed here. I discovered Phillips’ poetry nearly a decade ago, fell in love with it immediately, and I’ve been reading it on repeat ever since. His inimitable idiom and syntax have yielded incisively meditative lyric poems that come as close as any to conveying what Elizabeth Bishop called “a mind in action.” Indeed, Phillips himself has written that his sentences “are pretty much models of how I actually think.” As for what he contemplates in his poems, some of life’s most slippery experiences feature prominently: sex, risk, restlessness, subjugation (of and by others), loss, love. But Phillips’ poems do not attempt to answer or resolve the inevitable questions about life that arise from examining these experiences; rather, as Phillips himself says, his poems aim to “liv[e] within and beside” these questions. And it’s this ambiguity, this refusal to confine life and its multitude of experiences to easy explanation or description that makes Phillips’ verse some of the most thrilling, introspective, generous, philosophical, human poetry in contemporary American literature. In short, and without hyperbole, his poems will enrich your life like no others.
Carl and I spoke via email for a month or so, beginning last December. We ended up discussing so much that our conversation will appear in two parts. The first installment is below; the second will be published tomorrow.
While preparing for this interview, I scrolled through your recent tweets and found this one that you posted for World AIDS Day. It occurred to me shortly afterward that your poems, especially your later ones and particularly those in “Wild Is the Wind”, maneuver similarly to Thom Gunn’s (despite the fact that your work and his are quite different stylistically): They wrestle with order and unpredictability, restraint and risk, in ways that, as the New York Times Book Review remarked of Gunn’s poetry, make “even [your] freest compositions have a disciplined music” to them. “If You Will, I Will” comes to mind, with its shifting, wending meditations that ultimately coalesce into a ruminative whole (or at least feel like it); and, of course, with its lines like these: “I like a wreckage I can manage myself, / the chance it offers for that particular version of power / that comes from winnowing cleanly the lost from the still / salvageable, not erasing disorder exactly, but returning / order to a fair footing, at least, beside a wilderness I wouldn’t / live without.” Has this Gunn-like juxtaposition (if you agree it exists in your work) always been important to you as a poet? What do you suspect attracts you to it?
Yes, it’s definitely a juxtaposition that has been important to me, really from the very start. I think I first started engaging with it—as in, thinking about it—when I studied Greek tragedy as an undergraduate, and saw how often those plays center on the tension between how we’re told to conduct our bodies and how we find ourselves compelled to conduct them. Restraint is what we’re taught, but release is what the body so often wants. I know one of the reasons I feel such an affinity for Gunn’s work, and for the work of writers like Frank Bidart, is that early on they made me realize I wasn’t the only one with these feelings, and that these feelings were contemporary, not just the stuff of ancient Greece.
Which I suppose brings me to your second question: What do I suspect attracts me to this juxtaposition? I wouldn’t say I’m attracted to it; rather, it’s who and what I am. Necessarily, then, it’s what I write from. I agree that this seems more the case in the later work. I think that has a lot to do with getting older, and being mystified that the wilderness inside me doesn’t seem to have diminished, which makes for a lot more work for the other part that prizes decorum.
Many, if not all, of the poems in “Wild Is the Wind” suggest, or at least intimate, that there is no attainable permanent balance between our capacities for restraint and release; rather, we’re at the mercy of one or the other at any given time (our so-called free will notwithstanding). Is that a fair reading? Do you prize the wilderness or decorum more? Or is either not rich without the other?
That is indeed a fair reading—of life itself, in my opinion. I think we’re always trying to balance instinct against societal expectation, discipline against desire. I don’t prize either more than the other, because they require each other, in order to be knowable to us. I certainly don’t claim to have invented this thought. I think I first learned in Milton’s “Comus” about the idea that the sacred isn’t knowable without the profane. Or how, in the Shakespeare sonnet, there’s an argument for promiscuity as a means of narrowing down what true devotion might look like. For what it’s worth, I think a successful poem is one in which we’ve temporarily brought release and restraint into calibration, both prosodically and in terms of content.
Would you say, then, that we can interpret the wind in “Wild Is the Wind” as a metaphor for our selves, for our constant buffeting between discipline and desire, sometimes with control (or at least the convincing illusion of it) and other times without any, all of this motion unseen but for how it moves what it passes through? If so, is there a poem in “Wild Is the Wind” that, for you, speaks to or embodies this interpretation the most?
Well, the wind itself, like everything else from the natural world in my poems, is always only itself; I never have in mind that a tree or a fox or a wind stand for anything but what they are. But the wind in the book’s title has to do with the song “Wild Is the Wind”, from which I got that title. In the song, love is compared to the wind, in that it’s unpredictable, sometimes gentle, sometimes not. And a big part of the book is built around the desire to make something sturdy—or maybe a life that’s been spent trying to make something sturdy—out of what is ultimately unpredictable: human emotions, the effects of time, and maybe especially how memory works, in a wind-like way, coming and going, shifting, and again unpredictable. Unreliable.
I suppose the poem that speaks most directly to this is the title poem, how it talks about memory, but also especially how there’s this idea at the end, that the desire to stay with someone should count for something. I like to think I’m speaking there to how unstable intimacy and fidelity can be, and yet how compelled we are to try to fight that instability, if only for now.
One of the many poignant parts of the title poem arrives in the last two lines: “That I keep wanting to stay should / count at least for something. I’m not done with you yet.” That last sentence, especially, is freighted with both tender possibility and ferocious innuendo—an excellent note, some may argue, on which to end the collection. But after “Wild Is the Wind” we find the book’s final poem, “The Sea, the Forest”, one of the collection’s shorter pieces:
Like an argument against keeping the more unshakeable varieties of woundedness inside, where such things maybe best belong, he opened his eyes in the dark. Did you hear that, he asked…I became, all over again, briefly silver, as in what the leaves mean, beneath, I could hear what sounded like waves at first, then like mistakes when, having gathered momentum, they crash wave-like against the shore of everything that a life has stood for. —What, I said.
You’ve been including short poems like this in at least your last half a dozen or so collections—homed-in snatches of experience or meditation that, for what they so deftly reveal and withhold at the same time, bring to mind the works of Dickinson and Tomas Tranströmer, even Louise Bogan. What do poems like “The Sea, the Forest” represent for you, in terms of what they’re meant to convey on their own and how they figure in the sequencing of your collections?
Well, with “Wild Is the Wind”—but maybe ever since “Riding Westward” back in 2006—I’ve noticed the poems lean toward being longer and, not coincidentally, more philosophical, meditative, narrative, depending—modes which require more words, frankly, more space within which to develop and work through an argument. But I’ve always been a fan of the short lyric, and in maybe the last five or six years I’ve come to think that a poem can consist of “mere” gesture, a slight movement of the mind from A to B, equivalent to an eye shifting its gaze, or a body turning slightly in sleep. For me, these gestures are their own form of maybe unresolved argument. They open up an argument’s possibilities.
So, in “The Sea, the Forest,” it consists merely of an exchange of words between two people. But all around and in between the dialogue, such as it is, there’s the suggestion that not everything is meant to be said—or admitted to—and there’s the deliberate decision to deceive, to pretend not to have heard the approach of something potentially disastrous. What does that mean, to withhold what one knows, when it comes to intimacy? Is ignorance better? How much can anyone know of us, truly, if they only know what we tell them? All of that is in that poem, or that’s the idea, even though nothing ostensibly happens.
As for sequencing, yes, the ending of the title poem of the book would be the more resounding, powerful ending, I suppose—but it would also be how so many people expect a book of poems to end. I resist expectation, whenever possible. Meanwhile, the book as a whole is really much more about living within and beside the large questions of a life—it’s not about resolving them. I think “The Sea, the Forest” leaves the reader on a more ambiguous, though maybe no less triumphant, note. It’s also meant to give a feeling of “There’s more to come, Reader, it’s you I’m not yet done with.” That, anyway, is the goal.
I agree with you that ending “Wild Is the Wind” with the title poem would be too predictable, too neat. And I fully endorse resisting expectation whenever possible, especially in poetry. You’ve been resisting expectation as a poet since your first collection, “In the Blood”, which was published in 1992—namely the expectation that as a gay biracial man you should or would write poems that speak primarily to those aspects of your being and experience. You wrote about this expectation at length in your 2016 essay “A Politics of Mere Being”. Since then, have you noticed an increase in this expectation as America has rapidly shifted rightward politically? In his 2013 New Yorker piece on your poetry and then-new collection “Silverchest”, poet Dan Chiasson writes:
“The ordinary markers of identity—[Phillips] is black, he is gay, he grew up in a military family, crisscrossing the country—have at times been hard to find in his work, which suggests that identity abides not in the outer fringe of autobiographical fact but in the inner circle of emotional life. This emphasis on the inchoate private life has a polemical edge.”
Viewing your work from this perspective, have you ever considered your resistance to expectation—your continual exploration and interrogation of our abstract-yet-palpable interiors, as well as the implications or consequences this seeking and asking have on our physical worlds—as political in itself, whether or not you intend it to be? And, in the context of poetry in general, what’s your take on the old maxim that the personal is political and vice versa?
I do think the political is personal, in that what happens in the political arena affects each of us as individuals. Likewise, I think the personal is political, if by personal we mean an assertion of and insistence on our individuality, a refusal to fall in line with what’s assumed to be the general view. And I think it’s in this latter light that my poems could be considered political: They’re an argument, I hope, for the value of—the necessity for—introspection, for plumbing the self as a way of engaging more meaningfully with the world, and it’s this engagement with the world that becomes our contribution to a working society. Have I intended the poems to be political? No. I just write poems. But as I said in the essay you mentioned, I have found that just writing about being a queer man who thinks and loves has been perceived as political—maybe that’s the proof that the personal is political?
The point of my article was to argue against narrowing identity to only one or two things. I’m not just a queer man of color, I’m many things, and I think about many things. Including, for example, morality. I wrote the article because I have long been told that I’m not in fact a queer poet or a poet of color because I don’t write about queer, black things. Is morality not a queer, black thing? My point isn’t to avoid writing responsibly, but to hold oneself accountable for writing responsibly about all of one’s perceptions—and my perceptions are not limited to two facets of a multifaceted self. I don’t know if the expectations have changed as a result of a rightward political shift. I’ve never paid much attention to expectations, when it comes to my writing. Sure, I have a sense of what gets said, but I can’t let that distract me from writing the poems I need to write. Even the refusal to write toward outward expectation seems political, to me. It also involves distancing oneself from things like popularity/celebrity. Of course I hope people will read my poems, but I’m not strategizing for that to happen; it’s another way in which I’m maybe old-fashioned, I don’t know. I feel like the last poet in America who doesn’t have an agent! Give it time, maybe I’ll end up succumbing…
I was unaware that you don’t have an agent. It’s refreshing to learn that, especially nowadays when it seems like every published writer has one (or believes they ought to). So, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask: Why have you chosen to go the agent-less route?
And to briefly branch off our discussion of the short lyric, I’ve always found the epigraphs to your collections intriguing, sometimes even flooring—lines from Elizabeth Bishop in 2001’s “The Tether” and Tu Fu in “Silverchest”, for example. The epigraph to “Wild Is the Wind” reads as follows: “more rough, less blue, more lit, and patternless”. Is this your own? What is this epigraph’s function, if you will, in “Wild Is the Wind”? What purpose do epigraphs in general serve in your work?
Ha! Two very different questions. I wouldn’t say that I have chosen the agent-less route; it’s more the case that until maybe five years ago or so I hadn’t heard of poets having agents—what would we need agents for? Or I guess I knew that Robert Pinsky got an agent after he was named Poet Laureate, but I imagined being PL would involve so much more correspondence and business that one would need an agent to keep track of things. Now it seems everyone has an agent, even before they have a first book. Which made me wonder if I should look into the matter, so I asked around, and it mostly seemed the case that poets wanted agents because they had difficulty doing things like keeping a calendar, arranging a flight ticket, remembering where to go and when—things that, to me, are just part of being an organized adult. Since those are things I do all the time, on my own, why should I pay someone else? Another reason for an agent, I was told, was to generate more readings. But I feel happy with the number of invitations I get already. So, I find myself not quite knowing what it is that I would want from an agent. But that isn’t to judge those who do have agents, and I do understand that I’ve been around for a long time; beginning writers might need an agent just as a way to get some notice, to get their “brand” out there, so to speak. I’ve never been much about that. Also, besides being an old-timer, I also think agents are more appropriate for people whose work is more immediately accessible, both in terms of the writing and in terms of subject matter that can serve as a “hook” for a news story; I don’t think my work is marketable in that way.
Epigraphs… I think a good epigraph, for a book, does two things: It speaks to the sensibility or subject matter or mood or psychology of the poems that are to follow; and it becomes part of an active dialogue between two writers, the author of the epigraph and the author of the poems. I especially like this idea of being reminded that we are always in conversation with all of the voices that came before us. It’s a kind of marker, too, of how our contemporary concerns have always been human concerns: Desire, war, sorrow—these have been around forever. The epigraph works, then, as a kind of homage.
But having said that, the epigraph to “Wild Is the Wind” is an exception. It’s an excerpt from the concluding sentence to my poem “Rubicon”, which appears in my book “Speak Low”. In that poem, the words of the epigraph describe the act of forgetting. But I came to use these as the epigraph after I’d had difficulty assembling “Wild Is the Wind” into a book shape that worked for me. After weeks of frustration, to the point where I thought maybe I don’t really have a book here at all yet, I stumbled upon the earlier poem, and the ending words struck me as a directive: I’d been trying too hard to find the perfect shape for the book, to make things seamless, when maybe what I needed was something “more rough, less blue, more lit, and patternless.” Just like that, I knew how the poems should be sequenced, though I can’t explain how or why. And then once I’d picked it, the epigraph seemed as well to speak to the sensibility behind the poems themselves: a newer, more open way of living and of thinking about making a life together with another person.
That’s fantastic—stumbling upon earlier work and extracting a sort of life-giving force from it that both brought “Wild Is the Wind” into its “natural” order and, it seems, reinvigorated you with new perspectives and possibilities. Now I wonder how often we move on from fragments or lines that we don’t realize still want to speak to us?
On a different note, you mentioned beginning writers in the first part of your previous answer. You’ve long been involved with cultivating, if you will, talented younger poets, through your teaching at Washington University in St. Louis and as the Yale Series of Younger Poets judge. Alas, not all writers of your stature (poets or otherwise) are as generous with their time and energy when it comes to fostering their younger counterparts. What draws you to be as nurturing of younger poets and their work—as “accessible”—as you are?
I always save all of my drafts and notebooks, precisely because I find there are lines that didn’t work at the time in a certain context, but then months or years later I’ll find I see them differently, they become a starting point for something new, or they turn out to be the exact thing that’s missing from a current draft. In that sense, I never feel I’ve wasted time when I write, even if I don’t come away with a poem. It’s more like I’ve added to my storehouse of material.
And on to your question about nurturing younger poets… I suppose it’s as simple as that I’m passionate about teaching. I went to grad school for an education degree, in order to teach high school, and I ended up teaching high school Latin for eight years. From the very start, I loved working with that age group, and I loved how, as the only full-time Latin teacher, I usually had the same students for all four years of high school. So I really was part of their growing up. It felt like mentoring in some of the most important senses of the word; not just in terms of Latin language and grammar, but mentoring in terms of how to be a responsible adult, how to wrestle with feelings, how to find one’s way toward oneself. I had teachers like that, as a kid, and I was excited to be such a teacher myself.
Obviously, it’s different now, where I mainly teach graduate students who are, technically speaking, all grown up. But I have the same eagerness to help them find their strengths, on the page and off. Teaching is one way of doing that. Another is serving as a judge so that I can help bring new voices into the literary world; and in terms of the Yale, at least, I consider the job more than just the act of selecting a manuscript, but of offering guidance to the poet in terms of editing and other feedback, to whatever degree it’s wanted. I suppose for me the main point of being alive is to help give further life in a meaningful way—helping future generations seems a big part, I suppose, of my moral purpose. I don’t mean to sound high and mighty when I say that. But if we’re only here for ourselves? I just don’t get that.