Thank you for joining us at Lyric Essentials! This week, poet and translator Lucian Mattison reads for us Juan Gelman as he discusses history within Argentinian poetry and the bridge that connects people through poetry translation. Thanks for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: What is your relationship with Juan Gelman’s work? Has his work influenced your own writing at all?
Lucian Mattison: Although Gelman is a heavyweight back in Argentina, I am quite new to his work. I started off with this book Unthinkable Tenderness because it highlights different time periods in his life in its different sections. In this format, you see his writing actively moving with him and grappling with his being exiled from the country and his son becoming one of the desaparecidos, the victims who were “disappeared” by the anti-communist, military government of the time. My mother grew up in Argentina during the same time and told me stories about living during a time where at any point, one could be snatched from their home if they were seen as sympathetic to radical opposition groups like The Montoneros. The book provides me with another poetic lens through which to view these same kinds of stories which I have always heard about through anecdotes and depictions in movies. As he is a newer addition to my library, I cannot say where [his influence is] exactly just yet. But I can, without a doubt, say he has and is currently doing so.
EH: Of all of Gelman’s collections, why did you choose to read these two poems, both from Unthinkable Tenderness?
LM: I chose to read these two poems because they both deal with the feeling of being exiled in spirit. Gelman wrote these poems between 1974-1980, as he was being chased out of Buenos Aires and finding refuge in Rome. Not being able to go back to his motherland and see his family and children, he worried constantly for their safety, and rightfully so. His son and wife were disappeared in 1976. While other poems directly reference the heartbreak and acidity related to the family tragedy, these two poems bookend the tragedy. The first poem represents a time while there was a certain romance to the persecution, which he defies with the persistence of love and beauty. The later poem comes from a time where he identifies with the deferred dream of an immigrant, where his heart is both displaced and without any place to return. I chose these poems because they are both insistent in their repetition, but come from two very different places, both physically and emotionally.
EH: How does your role as a translator and role as a poet work together?
LM: I have been translating poetry from Spanish to English only since 2016, but I’ve been translating my whole life having grown up in bilingual household. In the small amount of time that I’ve been translating poetry, it became much clearer to me just how much Spanish influences my relationship to sound and sentence structure in English. Just like any poet, I defer to sound in a way that is specific to my experience of my languages. The simple fact is, my brand of Spanish is different from the rest of South America’s and, as a result, I relate differently to the world because I’ve been describing it with those terms for as long as I can remember. As a translator, the hardest work is preserving some of the emotional/experiential context inside a voice while working to keep it in line with contemporary English poetics. Being a poet who writes in English, I feel like it is my duty to use my experience in English poetry and craft, and my emotional relationship to my mother language to find an acceptable form for a translated work. I do it because it is important to hear the voices of our contemporaries across the globe and I am lucky enough to be able to build bridges like these.
EH: Are there any creative projects you are working on right now that you’d like to tell us about?
LM: Yes! I am currently looking for a publisher for a translation of Diego Alfaro Palma’s 2015 Santiago Literary Prize-winning collection of poetry, Tordo, published in Buenos Aires in 2016. This is his second collection of original poetry and the first translation of one of his books into English. As far as my own work, I am sending out my third collection of poems titled “Curare” for consideration at publishing houses. I am also writing a novellette that I hope to finish by the end of the year and, as always, I’m writing short stories.
Juan Gelman is an Argentinian poet, translator, journalist, and political activist who lived from 1930 to 2014, spending the last half of his life in political exile. Publishing over twenty books of poetry in his lifetime, he has earned several awards and accolades, including the 1997 Argentine Poetry Prize and the 2007 Cervantes Prize. Gelman is also a widely celebrated political journalist and human rights activist. Upon his death in Mexico City at age 83, Argentina’s president declared three days of national mourning.
Lucian Mattison is an U.S.-Argentinian poet and translator and author of two books of poetry, Reaper’s Milonga (YesYes Books, 2018) and Peregrine Nation (Dynamo Verlag, 2017), winner of the 2014 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize. He is currently based out of Washington, DC, where he is an associate editor of poetry for Barrelhouse. He won the Puerto Del Sol Poetry Prize and has poetry, short fiction, and translations that appear in numerous journals including CutBank, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hobart, The Offing, Sixth Finch, Third Coast, and have been featured on poets.org.
Learn more about Lucian at his personal website.
Buy Lucian’s most recent poetry collection Reaper’s Milonga from YesYes Books.
Read the announcement naming Mattison the recipient of the 2014 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/