“Living within and beside the large questions of a life”: a conversation with poet Carl Phillips (part two)

Carl Phillips. (Photograph by Reston Allen.)

As promised, here’s the second installment of my conversation with Carl Phillips. We discuss music, emerging poets, prose poems, translation and a host of other subjects.

(Editor’s note: One topic we don’t cover [because it was announced just yesterday]: Carl is the recipient of The Sewanee Review’s 2019 Aiken Taylor Award! Congrats, Carl!)

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.

“Postcard: Advice to a Young Poet”. (Courtesy of the Academy of American Poets.)

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”.

Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” (Oxford University Press, 2003).

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.

“Living within and beside the large questions of a life”: a conversation with poet Carl Phillips

Carl Phillips. (Photograph by Reston Allen.)

Toward the end of last year, we introduced and highlighted TED-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.

wild is the wind cover
“Wild Is the Wind” (FSG, 2018).

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.

Apply for your TED2019 Translator Pass now!

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Greetings, Translators! We’re thrilled to announce that the application period for TED Translator Passes to TED2019 is now open. The gathering will run from April 15-19, 2019, in beautiful Vancouver, Canada. The TED Translator Pass covers the conference fee, and travel and accommodation expenses. Please note that you must be a TED Translator with at least one set of published subtitles in order to be eligible for a pass. The application deadline is Jan. 6, 2019, at 5:00 p.m. EST, and you can apply here.

The theme of TED2019 is “Bigger than us”. Under this banner, we’ll explore technologies that evoke wonder and tantalize with superhuman powers; mind-bending science that will drive the future as significantly as any politician; the design of cities and other powerful human systems that shape our lives; awe-inspiring, enlightening creativity; and most of all, the incredible possibilities that open up when we ask which ideas are truly worth fighting and living for. We hope you’ll join us!

TED Translators at TEDxParis

Photo by Manuel Lagos Cid

On November 6, TEDxParis took place in la Ville Lumière at the Grand REX concert hall and cinema. The theme of this year’s gathering—which happened to be the 10th annual TEDxParis conference—was “X”, L’Inconnu (in English: “X”, The Unknown). And speakers and attendees convened to discuss and explore just that: a world in which ever-accelerating science and technology continuously present us with ever-increasing unknowns in all aspects of our lives.

A delegation of six TED Translators, led by Jenny Zurawell and Helena Batt, was among those in attendance, connecting local translators with TEDxParis organizers in order to further build and strengthen the relationship between TED Translators and TEDx organizers in general. The success of this group’s efforts at the gathering was made clear when TEDxParis organizer Michel Lévy Provençal gave a generous shout-out to TED Translators from the stage, screened the new TED Translators promo video, and encouraged audience members to volunteer with TED Translators to help make ideas globally accessible.

When all was said and done, at least one thing was certain: The TED Translators program continues to expand and gain momentum around the world—and it shows no sign of slowing down.

TED Translators at TEDxSãoPaulo


At the end of October, Helena Batt, deputy director of TED Translators, traveled to São Paulo, Brazil, to meet with local translators and TEDx organizers ahead of this year’s TEDxSãoPaulo gathering. The goal was to connect these folks in order to further bolster the thriving Brazilian TED Translators community.

The evening before TEDxSãoPaulo, Helena and a dozen or so translators and organizers convened at Seen restaurant, where they discussed the extremely productive network these two cohorts have built together. As Helena puts it: “The Brazilian TED Translators community—with its consistent collaboration between translators, as well as between translators and TEDx organizers—is a model of success for other translation communities. Vital to this success is the excellent training and mentoring that Brazilian Language Coordinators provide new translators, in addition to their efforts to include TED Translators in local TEDx events.”

TEDxSãoPaulo went down the next day, October 24, and saw TED Translators from numerous parts of Brazil come together to participate in activities and conversations co-organized by the Skoll Foundation. “It was refreshing and inspiring, especially in a country currently quite divided by politics, to witness and be a part of such a warm and synergetic community in action,” Helena says. “TED Translators looks forward to continuing to help develop the Brazilian translation community and to identifying its best practices to apply to other translation communities around the world.”

Check out TED-Ed’s new animated poetry series

tmuow3Poetry and animation may seem an unlikely combination upon first consideration: After all, how does one translate a poem—its language, action, imagery, idiom, emotion, syntax, rhythm—into visuals that are commensurate to what the poem is saying and doing on the page? Well, our friends at TED-Ed have accomplished just that with their new animated poetry series called “There’s a poem for that”.

The series recently launched with the poem “To Make Use of Water” by Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo. It’s a devastating but starkly beautiful lyric elegy spurred by the speaker’s reflections on dislocation, identity, estrangement, distance, home. While she struggles with both the privilege and guilt of leaving behind her family and culture to pursue a life in America (“/stupid girl, atlantic got your tongue/”, the speaker chides herself in the poem’s first section as she recalls Arabic and English words she’s forgotten), she also contemplates and interrogates her new world and the inclusion and exclusion she’s found there.

In TED-Ed’s short video, Elhillo reads “To Make Use of Water” (with accompanying subtitles) while animation with the texture of water, or perhaps watery memory, mirrors the poem’s movements. The images hover, swirl, dissolve (which is the title of one of the poem’s sections) into each other as they give shape to the speaker’s argument with herself. To be sure, “To Make Use of Water” stands on its own as piercing piece of art; but its coupling with animation heightens the poem’s drama of longing, of seeking impossible closure, of trying to reconcile two different selves that are nonetheless inextricably intertwined. The result is an arresting literary-visual work that demands to be watched and heard—and will certainly be relished—by anyone in search of a transformational artistic engagement. Go check it out here.

P.S. After Elhillo’s animated poem, stay tuned for an insightful interview with the poet.

TED Translators in Europe, part 2: Barcelona

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A few days after the Paris gathering, Jenny and Helena met with TED Translators in Barcelona, one of Europe’s many hubs for international students and professionals. The Green Spot restaurant was the venue, and nine translators with quite varied backgrounds and representing an array of languages convened there to brainstorm more effective ways of connecting local translators and identifying potential new Language Coordinators and mentors. In addition, as in Paris, Jenny, Helena and the group analyzed onboarding research and some of the latest TED Translators projects. A thoroughly productive engagement, this gathering underscored that not only is Barcelona’s translation community thriving, it’s also growing its ranks at a steady pace.