Silvina López Medin introduces poems that reflect on the writing process and the openings we encounter therein when boundaries blur between speaker and listener, creator and creation. She shares Robert Hass on going to the movies and Greek rhetorical devices (“Heroic Simile”), Adélia Prado on the earthy charms of poetry (“Seduction,” read by Prado’s translator Ellen Doré Watson), and Anne Carson on making marks (“Short Talk On Homo Sapiens”). López Medin concludes with her poem “I Am Writing This in My Head, My Hands Inside Gloves That Don’t Match,” which considers how the lost lingers in what remains.
You can find the full recordings of Hass, Prado as read by Watson, and Carson reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Robert Hass (1979)
Adélia Prado, read by her translator Ellen Doré Watson (1992)
Anne Carson (2001)
[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.18] This is Poetry Centered, where we invite a contemporary poet to curate and introduce recorded poetry readings from an archive that spans from 1963 to today. That archive is Voca, the online audiovisual archive at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson, here to welcome you and to introduce our host.
[00:00:25.84] We're joined today by poet and translator Silvina López Medin, who also serves as an editor for Ugly Duckling Presse. She publishes work in both Spanish and English. And her most recent book is titled, Poem That Never Ends. She's co-translated work by Anne Carson and Robert Hass into Spanish. And you'll hear two poems by those writers included in today's selections.
[00:00:49.69] In this episode, Silvina brings together poems that reflect on the process of writing and the tangles we encounter therein. When boundaries blur between poet and audience, fiction and reality. In addition to poems by Robert Hass and Anne Carson, you'll hear work by Adélia Prado read by her translator, Ellen Doré Watson. Welcome Silvina.
Silvina López Medin:
[00:01:12.69] This is Silvina López Medin recording from Quaternion Hudson, New York. Heroic Simile by Robert Hass was recorded on September 19th, 1979. This is the first poem by Robert Hass that I ever read, and the one that made me decide to translate his work into Spanish. I love the arc of the poem, how it builds layers of fiction.
[00:01:41.95] It begins with a swordsman fallen in a film by Akira Kurosawa. And then through similes, it moves forward to a tree, to homer, to the woods where there's no swordsman anymore, but a woodsmen. No sword, but a soul cutting wood. The images fall one onto the other throughout the poem as the wood being piled up.
[00:02:10.91] And then in the third stanza, the speaker appears and exposes his writing process. He observes his characters, and says that the woodsmen have stopped working. He says, "they are waiting for me to do something." And later he adds, "and there's nothing I can do." The path from here to that village is not translated.
[00:02:40.87] I like how Hass was also a translator. Blurs the limits between fiction and reality, characters and speaker poet, the difficulties of writing as a reader, I feel involved witnessing his process. In the ending stanza, he goes back to the movie theme of the first stanza. There is a couple living the theater, and we feel as if we were exiting the movies and the poem with them. Here is Robert Hass reading Heroic Simile.
[00:03:23.82] This is a longer poem on the same subject. It's called Heroic Simile. And it begins with the image from a movie by Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai. But the idea I had in mind from the title was of those elaborate process metaphors in Homer that go on, and on, and on. And the guy doesn't fall. He falls like a tree, and the tree falls on somebody's property. And litigation ensues, and it goes on, and on, and on with this terrific sense of action that Homer has. Anyway it's about going to the movies. Heroic Simile.
[00:04:10.57] When the swordsmen fell in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, in the gray rain, in Cinemascope in the Tokugawa Dynasty, he fell straight as a pine. He fell as Ajax fell in Homer in chanted dactyls. And the tree was so huge. The woodsman returned for two days to that lucky place before he was done with the sign. And on the third, day he brought his uncle.
[00:04:36.61] They stacked logs in the resinous air, hacking the small limbs off, tying those bundles separately. The slabs near the root were quartered and still they were awkwardly large. The logs from midtree they halved. 10 bundles and four great piles of fragrant wood. Moons, and quarter moons, and half moons ridged by the saw's tooth.
[00:05:00.19] The woodsman and the old man, his uncle, are standing in midforest on a floor of pine silt and spring mud. They have stopped working because they are tired and because I have imagined no pack animal or primitive wagon. They are too candy to call in neighbors and come home with a few logs after three days work. They are waiting for me to do something, for the overseer of the Great Lord to come and arrest them.
[00:05:28.96] How patient they are! The old man smokes a pipe and spits. The young man is thinking he would be rich if he were already rich and had a mule. 10 days of hauling. And on the seventh, they'll probably be caught, go home empty-handed, or worse. I don't know whether they're Japanese or Mycenaean. And there's nothing I can do. The path from here to that village is not translated. A hero dying gives off stillness to the air. A man and a woman walk from the movies to the house in the silence of separate fidelities. There are limits to imagination.
[00:06:16.23] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Silvina López Medin:
[00:06:21.72] Seduction by poet Adélia Prado was recorded by her translator, Ellen Doré Watson on October 14th, 1992. Adélia Prado is one of my favorite Brazilian contemporary poets. I love how she grounds her poems on a deceptive simplicity of language to talk about a blend of concrete and abstract themes.
[00:06:48.46] I chose this poem because as the other poems in this episode, it reflects on the writing process. Adélia builds tension between two characters that are poetry and the speaker. I like the range of interaction between these characters from the dangerous to the sensual and back. Poetry here becomes an embodied character. Poetry captures some forces of the speaker. Poetry picks up her skirt and lets me see, draws her heart tongue across my neck.
[00:07:25.92] There's a wrestling that seems to echo the back and forth we go through in a writing processes. At times feeling threatened by it. And at times enjoying it. I like how she brings poetry down to Earth from its sometimes elevated status, and how the ending line goes back to the tooth wheel of the first line. But adding one more layer of music to the rhyme will still.
[00:07:56.82] Adélia says poetry's tooth wheel is made of steel. As if saying whatever happens in the process, poetry ends up happening. Its strength persists. Here is Adélia Prado's translator, Ellen Doré Watson reading Seduction.
Ellen Doré Watson:
[00:08:20.77] I'm very happy to be here. I'm very sad not to be here standing next to Adélia. Some four-and-a-half years ago, when my daughter who was named after Adélia, Adélia was her godmother, was only eight weeks old, Adélia came to this country for the first time and we did a reading tour through New England and New York City. And it was truly exciting to stand side by side with her and celebrate the poetry. So I'd like to feel like she's with us tonight.
[00:08:54.62] The alphabet in the park is made up of selections from Adélia's first three books of poetry. And I'm going to begin with three poems from the first book, which is called Bagagem, which means baggage. Seduction. Poetry catches me with her toothed wheel and forces me to listen, stockstill to her extravagant discourse. Poetry embraces me behind the garden wall, she picks up her skirt and let's me see, loving and loony.
[00:09:28.32] Bad things happen, I tell her. I too am a child of God. Allow me my despair. Her answer is to draw her hot tongue across my neck. She says, rod, to calm me. She says stone, geometry. She gets careless and turns tender. I take advantage and sneak off. I run and she runs faster. I yell and she yells louder, seven demons stronger. She catches me making deep grooves from tip to toe. Poetry's tooth wheel is made of steel.
[00:10:06.85] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Silvina López Medin:
[00:10:13.18] Short Talk on Homo Sapiens by Anne Carson was recorded on February 21st, 2001. Anne Carson is a poet I have had the honor to translate into Spanish. This poem, as the others in this episode, reflects on the writing process. The poem begins saying, quote, "With small cuts, cro-magnon man recorded the moon's phases on the handles of his tools." End of quote.
[00:10:43.51] Those three first words, with small cuts, also seem to talk about what Carson is doing on the language level. With small cuts, the poem only has six sentences. Carson builds a brilliant piece that extends for around 45,000 years from the cruel magnum men to the present moment of the speaker that says, "In every story I tell comes a point where I can see no further."
[00:11:15.21] The speaker acknowledges the difficulties of writing, as in Robert Hass poem, as in Adélia Prado's poem. Yet blinded, she keeps on telling. She writes the rest of the poem. Poetry ends up happening. It persists. Here is Anne Carson reading, Short Talk on Homo sapiens.
[00:11:44.77] Now secondly, I would like to read to you a few selections from the first thing that I ever wrote. This is a collection called Short Talks. And Short Talks-- a Short Talk is a one-minute lecture on this or that subject. And I feel I invented this poem.
[00:12:17.83] And I did so when I was teaching at Princeton in the '80s. If you've ever been to Princeton, you will know why there was a need for the invention of such a poem.
[00:12:35.82] Well, Short Talk on Homo Sapiens. With small cuts, cro-magnon men recorded the moon's phases on the handles of his tools, thinking about her as he worked. Animals, horizon, face in a pan of water. In every story I tell comes a point where I can see no further. I hate that point. It is why they call storytellers blind. It is a taunt.
[00:13:15.92] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Silvina López Medin:
[00:13:24.65] Now I will read a poem of my own. It's called I Am writing This in My Head, My Hands Inside Gloves That Don't Match. It's from my book that just came out, Poem That Never Ends. As the other poems I have chosen for this episode, one of the themes in this poem is the writing process.
[00:13:47.88] I Am Writing This in My Head, My Hands Inside Gloves That Don't Match. I lose at least one from the pair per season. And hold on to the other, that single glove left behind still contains the last one. That is to say on the winter break, I read Pascal Quignard. In every image there is a missing image, says he. I add, in every sound, there's a missing sound. Say my mother, how she, because of her hearing impairment is permanently reconstructing sentences from fragments. Isn't that writing?
[00:14:31.98] I am. walking the nine blocks back home from the subway. It is 18 degrees, and I'll never know how to turn that into Fahrenheit or how at times I focus on something so much as to become something else. Gloves prevent us from breaking apart. Gloves are not relevant. In Buenos Aires, this cold does not exist. The kind that makes you turn not only your head, but your whole body just to look at what's coming.
[00:15:06.12] I did not write much, but just brought a couple of summer images. My mother and I at night standing in front of a white wall, killing mosquitoes. My mother, my sons, I in the backyard, hurrying to take away the clothes from the clothesline and the light rain.
[00:15:30.02] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:15:38.33] Silvina, it's been a pleasure to hear what you've brought together here. Thank you for that look at writing about writing. Listeners, thank you so much for tuning in. We hope you're enjoying the show, and we'd be grateful for ratings, reviews, or shares with others who might be interested. Don't forget to also check out the show notes for links to the full recordings that you've heard snippets of today. There are two more episodes left in this current season. So we hope you'll join us again in two weeks for an episode hosted by Sumita Chakraborty. Thanks again.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:16:11.03] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world-class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center library and buildings are housed on the indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people. Poetry Centered is the work of Diana Marie Delgado, that's me, and Julie Swarstad Johnson with support from--
[00:16:41.24] Sarah Gzemski.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:16:43.01] Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive online at voca.arizona.edu