Alexander Booth is an American poet and translator, who lives in Berlin. His translations include Friederike Mayröcker, Sandro Penna, Lutz Seiler, and many more, with works from Jürgen Becker and Friedrich Ani appearing soon with Seagull Books. He published Triptych earlier this year.
Although you don’t refer directly to origins, the sense of displacement and foreignness resonates strongly throughout Triptych. How much of its writing was inspired by the experience of exile?
Well, a lot; that is indeed its primary focus… Let’s say that, as a point of departure, I feel that poetry is itself a form of exile; or rather, that those who write it come from that perspective. And, in various ways, my personal situation speaks to that.
Despite that however, and despite the mix of cultures, locations and languages, there didn’t seem to be any angst over the issue – or burden – of personal identity.
One thing that’s very important to me, a little less now than when I was younger, but I was very, very strict about never using the personal pronoun “I” and attempting to use the “eye” instead; a certain depersonalization that, hopefully, would afford one an ability to make something more universally approachable. I don’t want to over determine, and I think that’s really important.
With Roman Hours, the first poem was written the day that my father was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. A lot of those poems were very much about the personal disorientation that comes with illness and death, especially of your family. Then there is the dislocation attendant to much of modern experience, as well as divorce and the very common experience of moving between countries and cultures.
But, you know, these three parts come from very different times – though I look at that as a very particular longer time within my life overall, one larger phase, if you will.
In the middle section, The Little Light that Escaped, escape is presented quite ambiguously, there are disappearances, people sneaking out of windows, escaping pasts, real or imagined, making bids for a freedom which can seem impossible. What’s your relationship to the idea of escape?
It’s a nice iambic, right? All of those things that you mentioned are very much a part of it. And there an ambiguity in the very title, of course.
A good bit of it was being written at the time I was doing work with certain NGOs in the Mediterranean, dealing directly, obviously, with a lot of migrant issues – and on the personal side wondering what leads one to attempt an escape, as well as a greater meditation on what “escape” might even mean. Because most of us are trying to escape in some way or the other.
I was curious about the line you rewrote / rephrased from Perec: “Isolated detail an impossible question.” How do details play into to the questions the text presents?
It’s the essential koan of life, isn’t it? There are a number of things in there, a number of different experiences and times coming together. But what do any one of them, individually, answer? What do they explain? For example, “In the morning, the gold crumpled mylar sea”: this has to do with the Homeric myths of the Mediterranean and how it’s always been described versus the mylar that people receive in boats or migrant centres, for example. That disconnect. And later, “And names in dust on windowframes”: I was in the United States on September 11th, in Washington, and when I was in New York the following October, one of the weirdest things was that walking around, you’d come across names people had written in the dust. That was when everything was still burning and there was just a heavy feeling, the air still full smoke and smoulder. But what you didn’t know – was it someone who had lost somebody, someone who was missing, presumed dead? Or someone just saying, “I miss my partner”? That idea of utter absence and transience was extreme. Extreme. The delicacy of life.
Obviously, it’s a lot about degradation too and how the physical landscape can start to resemble the interior landscape; and they feed one another, so the more the landscape deteriorates the more you also, internally, can begin to do so. And vice versa.
There’s all that, and then you have the quote from Artaud, for example. I was listening to the radio, and someone was talking about Artaud, reading from one of his letters, and that line, I thought, “That is just the most human thing.” Artaud, in the midst of his madness, is writing a letter to a friend saying, “When you come visit, could you please bring me these two things, rice and semolina” and I thought, “That’s it, that’s it right there.” So throughout there are these details which I hope, on some level, even if one isn’t necessarily conscious of what the import could be, somehow resonate.
How did your writing process change over the course of compiling Triptych?
It’s changed a lot as, now, working primarily as a translator, which was not something I ever set out to do, I don’t really write. I don’t want that to sound like a complaint, it’s just what it is. After working with other people’s languages and visions and so forth, I just don’t have the space or the energy. For Roman Hours I was trying to get it as spare as I could and still have it work.
And that’s always been an interest of mine, aesthetically. I’m definitely not a Warholian “leave them wanting less” type.
I think this is a problem too with a lot of open form, free verse: I don’t think that many people really care or pay enough attention: the line carries a lot of weight. No verse is free for the person who wants to do a good job, to paraphrase Eliot. I felt that writing in verse specifically had become too heavy, too constraining.
In a lot of what became The Little Light that Escaped there were bits of more “classical” verse, or “ghost iambics” anyway, then longer bits which were prose-y, but I don’t look at it as prose, I just look at it as lyrical writing. And almost counterintuitively, I feel that also gave what’s being written about more breathing room then it might have had if I had been trying to work in verse.
You mentioned that it had never been your intention to become a translator. Had you aspired to being a poet?
The poet Charles Wright once said he started to translate when he was in between poems, and I think that’s a really great way of putting it. In ways that’s true of me as well. There were a lot of poets, bits and pieces, that I would translate for myself and then living in Italy you just did translation for extra money. But it wasn’t until I moved here and couldn’t find any work that thanks to a series of different things, I ended up doing more and eventually ended up a translator. It still kind of surprises me.
When I was younger, as a teenager and such, I was much more interested in music and photography. I was always interested in literature, but it was kind of a frame, there were certain books by certain people that I enjoyed, but it wasn’t anything serious.
How have the poets you’ve translated, in particular, influenced your work and who else has had an important effect on your writing?
Mayröcker was massively important to me when I was younger. A huge thing for me. Sandro Penna. Lutz Seiler too. Either there are things I want to learn, steal or that I already feel I have a connection to. And obviously one’s way of going about things will naturally lend itself to certain people more than others.
Ungaretti was really, really important. His early books.
Basil Bunting, Briggflatts in particular, is important. George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, the late work of Marie Luise Kaschnitz; she was a very big poet for her time and is now completely gone. Anabasis from St-John Perse.
And then a lot of people that aren’t typically thought of as poets, like Beckett. And I was, for a very long time, interested in a lot of Japanese aesthetics. Not just the writing.
Of the people you’ve translated, who would you like to see get a bigger readership in English?
That’s tough! I think in field latin is a fantastic collection of poems. Mayröcker certainly doesn’t need my help. I love Penna’s stuff but that’s so personal… What I like so much is that these are all artists who are also truly unique. You cannot mistake them for anyone else, and I think that’s missing right now. There’s a lot out there, just so much, and much of it is pretty good, but very little of it stands out in any particular way, and these were people who just stuck with it and said, “Hey, you don’t have to like it. You can read something else,” and they kept doing what they were doing. I think that’s fundamental. A band that was important to me, Coil, used to say, “Perseverance is all.” I like that.
And maybe that’s another reason behind why I made Triptych; I just got sick of sending my work out and waiting around. Not to mention that nowadays everybody wants money to submit as well. And I get it. But I thought, you know, ultimately, it’s just stupid. No one is interested in what I am up to. I need to just do it myself.
A friend of mine mentioned an interview he’d heard with Bob Mould, from Hüsker Dü and later Sugar. Mould was being interviewed telling the story of how some major label was really interested, saying, “Now we can get you into this many households and this and that.” And he said, “Look, I don’t really need to be in all these households. I need to reach who I need to reach, those people will get my work and that’s enough.” That’s something that’s really important, and for me it was just the same thing. I can do this and control everything, and the people who will, will and those won’t, won’t and what difference does it really make?
Was it an easy process getting the book made? It’s a beautiful object, aside from its contents.
You just need some money! I didn’t want to go for the much cheaper option of getting it done online. I like personal interaction – last year I had translated some work for an architectural firm, the man who put it together is named Jan Blessing, and I looked at the book they’d released together, and it was beautiful; very German, very spare, very tasteful. So after receiving yet another rejection earlier this year I just said, “You know what, I’m sick of this.” So I got in touch with Jan, saying, “I want to do a book, I just need you to set it. I already have the artwork (a beautiful piece by the artist Guy Dickinson), I know exactly what I want. I just need you to put it in InDesign and then do the actual printing. Is that something you’d be interested in?” That was it.
He did the offset. We chose paper together (agreeing on the renowned Italian producers Fedrigoni) and then he had this idea of doing different coloured inserts for each section, which I thought was very attractive. In the end, the book would be a bit more expensive, but I felt it would be worth it. And I think it turned out beautifully.
I’m very happy it’s out there for those who want it.
That kind of DIY ethos seems to go against the current culture, where even in areas like poetry there’s a sense of selling yourself, climbing the ladder, hustling …
Well, yeah, it’s always a hustle. But the thing is: to get where? Another invitation to… What? You’re going to get another book contract or get invited to a cooler party? More followers? Are you actually going to make a living from being a poet?
The DIY idea feels fundamental. It’s everything I do. I believe in friendships. I believe in talking to people. I believe in taking my time – you think I would have moved to Italy if I was making good career choices? We need to learn to wait.
But I think, yeah, it’s a question of the work you do and what’s behind it. Right now we miss the feeling of “no, no that’s enough.” We don’t know anymore, or many don’t, what it’s like to come across work that is outside, that is a parte. So much of what I encounter, maybe it’s not fair but I feel it, is saying: “I want you to like me.” How can you make someone like you and why should you even try?
To come back to Triptych: there’s a shift in Insulae, the final section, from the more expansive perspectives of Roman Hours to a focus the intimate details of rooms, which suggests groundedness, contentment and having overcome the fractures that marked the earlier poems. To what extent does the collection set out to express this narrative?
I know lot of people might look and say “Oh, late 2019, that’s right before Corona…” and all, and, well, that’s true, but it’s just kind of a funny turn of events. I was on a flight back to the United States, listening to a German radio programme about, you know, the Germans’ love for Italy and how this is one of the definitions of being German – you’ve got your Goethe-esque “show me the land where the lemon trees bloom” and all that. But the point was that they were talking about Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome. They mentioned the word insulae, which is an apartment house or a block in ancient Rome, and immediately I just thought, “That’s it!” and wrote something down. Then, when I arrived in the States, in about the next 10 days, I wrote them all in one go, more or less.
No one has them anymore (or very few, anyway), but you used to have your actual photo albums, and each photo is of itself this isolated space, or that’s what they end up being once you move on with and in your life. And the Insulae, they’re rooms, and have to do with revisiting certain spaces. They’re impressions. But in that way too, there is an arc of a kind because in Roman Hours there is very much an outward perspective. And then in The Little Light that Escaped, it’s very strong in terms of specific landscapes, but it is also very internal, it’s a movement. And by the time you get to the rooms – what’s more private than a room?
I think a lot of times that’s the thing too, we always look for the really obvious arc without considering the psycho-logic. And there is one. There should be and… I would just say that if you can manage to get to the place where I feel it ends, then you’re doing rather well. Which is to say, through all of these various movements, literal and metaphorical, and many of them not exactly pleasant, if you can move through all of that to get to somewhere where you can say, “Here it is always warm, and everything’s just at the edge of beginning…”
I guess, to me, the thing is that there is always some kind of possibility, somewhere, and that you can find, maybe, certain solace.
Two quick, Zeitgeist-y questions to end, both relating to your practices. First, and maybe more straightforward, what do you make of the discussions around the profile of the translator, names being included on the front covers, etc?
I think that’s important, and I think that’s very fair. You’d want to know whether a piece of music was conducted by, say, Karajan or Bernstein, no? Or whether the piano was played by András Schiff or Glenn Gould. I don’t totally subscribe to this whole idea that it’s equal work – who was it, Gregory Rabassa, translator of Cortázar and Marquez? He was very adamant about equal billing and “I’m just as much of a writer”… I don’t agree but, be that as it may, I think with all the work that translators do, and all the bullshit they have to go through, the very least you can do is put their name on the cover. That’s just a basic thing of respect.
And then the other one was related to this controversy over the poetry editor saying on Twitter “poets just talk to each other”, poetry doesn’t do anything, essentially, then getting fired from her position at a poetry magazine –
You know, I don’t spend time online precisely because of crap like that…
I don’t know. Poetry is important and it’s not. I mean, it’s definitely niche. And that’s fine. I don’t know why people are so worried about – I don’t know why they worry about a lot of things.
Go spend time in some other places and look at how awful people’s lives are on an everyday basis. It’s lovely that you’re going to say, “Well, poetry will make it all better.” But I’m not really sure about that. That’s not the immediate goal and doesn’t need to be either. A greater sense of proportion would be better for everybody.
I think that the people who really need to be answering these questions, though, are the ones who are getting on in really intolerable daily realities, not people, like myself, who are in a pretty privileged, lucky position.
Perhaps the best thing that anyone can say, or that I can say, is that poetry made me think about my own life a bit more and maybe pause for a moment. And, aside from the sheer beauty of the best work, that’s a beautiful moment, to have that time and space in which to actually engage with your life, the life you’ve led, more than you might have otherwise. It creates a space in which you can do that. And that’s a very special space, a very personal, intimate one. It doesn’t need to be shouted from the rooftops.
And I think, in terms of literature, one hopes that it’s been done in a particularly memorable way and that has to do with language, that is, the material. In poetry, that’s the vehicle, and for me it must be musical. In simplest terms, it’s language that does more: getting the song and capturing the image. And furthermore, what’s very important to me, and I think for many, is the idea that out of this great, faceless maelstrom of chaos around us that there are these hands that come from out of the darkness. The art with which you’re engaging is offering a hand: “I was there too,” and that is a beautiful—I dare say miraculous—thing.
Alexander Booth is a poet and literary translator from German and Italian into English. Twitter: @wordkunst. .
Tobias Ryan: is a writer and interviews editor at Minor Literature[s]. Twitter: @tobiasvryan.