TRANSLATING THE UNSPOKEN
PABLO MEDINA with Eloisa Amezcua
The Island Kingdom
(Hanging Loose Press, 2015)
I met Pablo Medina during my first semester as an MFA candidate at Emerson College back in 2012. I’d scheduled a meeting with him despite not being in any of his classes—I was looking for some guidance. Upon learning that Spanish was my first language, Pablo gave me a list of poets I should be reading, in the original Spanish. I didn’t mention that his bilingual poetry collection Points of Balance / Puntos de Apoyo was one of the main reasons I’d applied for the program. I went on to take two courses with him during my time at Emerson: a translation seminar on theory and practice and a literature course aptly titled “The Poet, the Daemon, the Craftsman.” I should note that I was also his assistant as the Graduate Program Director, and a research assistant for his translation project of The Weight of the Island by Virgilio Piñera. All this is to say, I got to know Pablo well during those two years, not only as a professor, but also as a poet, translator, and great thinker.
Sixteen books of poetry, fiction, memoir and translation since his first book, Pork Rind and Cuban Songs, he comes to us with his newest collection The Island Kingdom. I spoke with Pablo at a cafe in Boston’s South End neighborhood before he embarked on a one-year sabbatical from teaching. Our conversation, from mentor to pupil, on his writing process, language, and new-found obsessions continued through e-mail correspondence.
Eloisa Amezcua (Rail): Your books seem to be in conversation with one another, spanning from the first collection Pork Rind and Cuban Songs to The Island Kingdom. Cuba, your home until the age of twelve, is at the center of those two books specifically. What draws you to the island?
Pablo Medina: Do you mean the cursed condition of being surrounded by water on all sides, as Virgilio Piñera put it? The island was where I first came to light, I first walked, first talked. The island is in me and surrounds me, a sort of water of the imagination. It might be a cursed condition, but it’s all I’ve got.
Rail: You said recently, in an interview with Cubaencuentro, “I define myself in Spanish. I manifest (myself) in English.” (my translation). You’ve published collections of poetry in both languages, as well as your bilingual edition of Points of Balance / Puntos de Apoyo. What draws you to one language over the other?
Medina: Circumstances. When I am with Spanish speakers I speak Spanish, and I speak English with English speakers. When I’m with someone who speaks both, I code-switch, though I am not terribly comfortable with Spanglish, a particular form of code switching. Someone just told me that Robert Lado, the great linguist who taught at Georgetown for many years, called me the perfect bilingual. I don’t remember him saying that, but I’m bilingual all right. I don’t speak with forked tongue but with two tongues.
Rail: Any writing, regardless of the initial written language, is already a translation—of experience, history, reality, etc.—into written word. Do you stick with the initial written language (i.e. Spanish or English) with which you begin a piece? If not, what is your process of self-translation like?
Medina: The language that underlies what I write is Spanish. I naturally define myself in that language. I’ll give a brief example: whenever I think of someone laughing, I say to myself “Je je.”When I write it in English it comes out as “Ha ha.” In other words, much of my work in English, whether poetry or prose, is translated from that first language, generally private and unspoken, into a second language, public and voiced. Translation is basic to what I do, to how I think, to how I manifest myself.
Rail: Speaking of manifestations, The Island Kingdom is full of characters—the Island itself, the Blue-Faced Man, Lady Babel, the Wild Dog, and many more. They, like the poems in the collection, are both wildly imaginative yet contained and refined. Can you speak to the use of creating characters in the writing of this book?
Medina: They’re emblematic. I am not after the shading of those characters in the way of modern fiction. When the wild dog howls, it is my howl he is embodying, but the cause of the howl is not psychological. It is the nature of the wild dog to howl, just as it is the nature of the Blue-Faced Man to look out the window to the meadowlands of Northern New Jersey.
Rail: What then would you say is the nature of the poet?
Medina: I can’t really speak about the poet’s nature, except to say that it is human. I can, however, speak to the nature of poetry, which is a foundational way of engaging with the world and trying to understand it, using the most basic tools we possess—language, and its handmaiden, music.
Rail: You have a series of “Saint” poems in The Man Who Wrote on Water, as well as in your latest collection The Island Kingdom. How did these poems come about? What specifically about “sainthood” draws these poems out?
Medina: The word “saint” in the title of those poems refers not to Christian belief, at least not directly, but to the word santo as it is used in santería. I believe that all things perceptible have a spirit or a santo, an essence if you will, which allows us to perceive them and interact with them. Whether that perception is imposed by us, the perceivers, or is in the object a priori our perceiving it, is not my concern in those poems. I leave that up to the philosophers.
Rail: Funny you should mention philosophers. There are numerous poems that reference or are in conversation with writers and thinkers of the past, including Friedrich Nietzsche in “Nietzsche’s Eyes.” The book also contains epigraphs from Huidobro, Cavalcanti, Basho, and others. Alan Michael Parker refers to them as your “ghosts.” How do you envision this collection as being in conversation with the broader literary landscape, that is, the writing of these “ghosts”?
Medina: I suppose they are ghosts, but they’ve also been my companions and my masters. To paraphrase Basho, they sought what I have been seeking.
Rail: I’m intrigued by the idea that they are both companions and masters. It certainly comes through in your writing—you find a way to emulate and expand on their style, in turn creating your own aesthetic. It’s beautiful. How did you envision The Island Kingdom coming together when writing poems for/about/in conversation with your companions and masters?
Medina: I didn’t sit down to write a collection of poems titled The Island Kingdom. The book coalesced, as do most of my books, after a period of four years, when I became aware of several themes that ran through the poems, precisely as a result of those conversations, threading them together in a chaotic but not meaningless fashion, as an archipelago is threaded together by islands in proximity to one another.
Rail: The final section of The Island Kingdom, “The Elementaries,” is made up of nine sections, nine tercets each, that are very tight syllabically. This makes sense given the title of the series—the poem aims to address elemental matters of life—sex, desire, reason, love, death. Did you go into the writing of this poem with these restraints in mind, or did they arise organically during the composition?
Medina: I like to play with form. In The Man Who Wrote on Water there are a number of sonnet-like contraptions (pseudo-sonnets, if you like), where I broke up the stanzaic patterns in ways I thought might be more palatable to contemporary sensibilities, while in “The Elementaries” I was exploring the haiku form. Most of those stanzas are seventeen syllables, in a five-seven-five pattern. Did I mention that I am intrigued by numerology?
Rail: Tell me more about this interest in numerology.
Medina: I am intrigued by numbers and their relationships. Two plus two equals four, but it could be just as true that two plus two equals five, given the right set of assumptions. Why are some numbers culturally more significant than others? I like prime numbers (I almost said primal) but I cannot say why. I like set theory. I like the paradox of the Grand Hotel.
Rail: In the fifth section of “The Elementaries,” you write very candidly, “I’ve done three thousand/ poems, the oak has grown ten/ thousand leaves. Who cares?” And later, “What I say and what/ I mean are clusters of grapes/ from a twisted vine.” These lines, this series, feels like an ars poetica. If the answer to your [rhetorical] question is “no one,” why do you keep writing? What drives your work? Is it simply a means of untwisting the grape vines?
Medina: I allude to Walter Benjamin’s statement: “No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.” And then say that, yes, you're right, to a point. I am trying to untwist those vines but only in my mind's eye. Poetry is written in solitude, plumbing the depths of the possible in relation to the actual. The possible and actual are always present, sometimes in contrast, sometimes as complements. The intent of the poem remains as a way of connecting with an other, though that other is not always in my consciousness at the moment the poem is being composed.
Rail: In closing, it must be very special for you that your son, Pablo Medina Jr., does much of your cover design, including for The Island Kingdom as well as the Virgilio Piñera translations The Weight of the Island (Lavender Ink Press, 2015). How does this collaboration work between the two of you? Do you find similarities between the mediums you each work in respectively?
Medina: P Jr. is a typographer as well as a fine artist, so he deals with words as well as pictures. It's always a wonder to me how his visual imagination captures what is essential in my work. Some day when time allows we will do a real collaboration, with his work and mine in counterpoint. Until then I feel blessed that he does such marvelous covers.
ELOISA AMEZCUA is an Arizona native. She recently finished her MFA at Emerson College and works in Cambridge, MA. She’s received scholarships from the New York State Summer Writers Institute, the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference, and the Vermont College of Fine Arts Post-Graduate Workshop. Her poetry and translations are published or forthcoming from BOAAT, The Boiler Journal, Salamander, and others. You can find her at www.eloisaamezcua.com.