An Interview in Paris with Marilyn Hacker
Marilyn Hacker’s 2008 translation of Marie Etienne’s poetry, King of a
Hundred Horsemen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) knocked me out. The long
lines brought to mind Whitman and C.K. Williams, the fragmentation and
multiple narrators made the narrative thoroughly contemporary. The
translation never called attention to itself. The French turned into transparent
English, lyrical all the way. Apparently the book impressed Robert Hass as well;
he was judge for the 2007 Robert Fagles Translation Prize of the National
Poetry Series, and Hacker’s book rose to the top. This book also won the
2009 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Hacker is always translating,
shaping a book or two a year; past volumes have included
work by Claire Malroux, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, and Guy Goffette,
The author of a dozen volumes of her own poetry, her newest
book, Names, will be out from W.W. Norton in November, 2009.
Hacker spends much of the year in Paris.
I asked for an interview, and she agreed.
June 1, 2009. Marilyn Hacker kindly offered to walk over and
meet me at my hotel on Rue des Ecoles in the Latin Quarter. She
assured me that the hotel was “just across the river” from her
apartment in the Marais. Part of what Hacker loves about Paris is
the way the city lends itself to diverse neighborhoods all within
walking distance. Twenty minutes later she arrived, lean, spritely,
energetic. Hacker is both a builder of bridges and one who traverses
them in her translating every day.
Monday many French shops are closed, it took just a few minutes
to find an open cafe on des Ecoles. Marilyn H. ordered grapefruit
juice and I asked for Glenfiddich with a couple of glaçons, ice. We
sat amid cheerful noise and clatter, M.H. clutching my little tape
recorder and speaking into it.
Before the interview, Marilyn told me that she had been a book
dealer in London back in the 1970’s, and had rented a friend’s flat
in Paris in 1985. When the apartment became available in 1989,
she bought it. And since then has spent several months a year
(sometimes the whole year) in Paris, the rest of the time in New
York, where she is a Professor at City College and at the CUNY
Graduate Center. Like the poets she admires and translates, Hacker
herself moves readily between cultures, and is one who thrives in
an international atmosphere.
Marilyn Kallet: First, I wanted to ask how you selected the most
recent volumes that you’ve translated. I’m thinking of the works of
Marie Etienne, and of Vénus Khoury-Ghata.
Marilyn Hacker: And there are two more collections of poems that
are coming up: He and I, by Emmanuel Moses, with Oberlin’s Field
Translation Series, and Hédi Kaddour’s Treason, with Yale. Marie
Etienne’s Roi des Cent Cavaliers is not a collection but a unified
book, a series of linked sequences, published as such in France.
The last Vénus Khoury-Ghata book, Nettles, contains poems from
two of her collections. Part of this is a long sequence that she wrote
during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006, that I wanted to
include, in particular.
MK: Has the work of these poets influenced your own in terms of
style or in other respects?
MH: Sometimes it’s difficult to say when one has been influenced.
I’m sure that I have been. There are a couple of things that I’ve
done formally. In her other books, Marie Etienne has poem
sequences that I translated, written in ten-line, ten-syllable stanzas,
with a somewhat surreal narrative line. I deliberately created a
poem like that that is going to be in my own new book, Names.
There’s also a sequence of glosas, a Spanish form where you take
four lines— ideally, but not necessarily a quatrain— from somebody
else’s poem— and then elaborate four ten line stanzas, each
of which ends with one of those lines. I’ve done those using poems
that I’ve translating as the glosed lines. There’s one starting off
with four lines by Vénus Khoury-Ghata, one using lines by Claire
Malroux, one beginning with four lines by Guy Goffette. So there’s
that kind of back-and-forth. Otherwise, I know that the way other
people use language, the play of images and syntax, certainly permeates
my own work, and I welcome that.
MK: Would you talk more about the next projects, books by
Emmanual Moses and Hédi Kaddour.
MH: It’s interesting to me to think about how many of the French
poets that I’ve translated are people who have something international
about their lives, and something of a polyglot history. Vénus
Khoury-Ghata is Lebanese, bilingual in French and Arabic, and
came to France thirty years ago when she was in her thirties. Marie
Etienne, although she is French and of French parents, spent much
of her childhood in Indochina, what is now Vietnam, where her
father was in the French army and was a prisoner of war of the
Japanese during World War II. He survived. He’s 99, alive and well,
in Toulon. He kept a journal of his imprisonment. His daughter
used that, with his permission, in her novel. L’enfant et le soldat,
which is about a French Indonesian childhood, and about a French
soldier who is taken prisoner by the Japanese—what happens to
him and to his family.
Emmanuel Moses is the son of a French Jew, born in Berlin, an historian
of Jewish philosophy, and another French Jew, a painter,
whose family was Polish. He was born in Casablanca, grew up in
France, spent ten years in Israel, returned to France where he’s
lived since. He’s the author of several novels and of ten books of
poems. He himself is a translator from German, Hebrew, and
Hédi Kaddour was born in Tunisia, and has also lived in France
since he was a young boy. He’s not a translator, but he’s fluent in
German and Arabic, and worked in Morocco for several years as a
teacher of French before being named to the faculty of the Ecole
Normale Supérieure in Paris. Claire Malroux who is entirely
French, but is a noted translator of Emily Dickinson, and of
Wallace Stevens and Derek Walcott. I recognize my attraction to
poets who move back and forth between languages and cultures,
though they write in French.
MK: I love your poems about motherhood, about your daughter,
and wondered what subjects you are dealing with these days in
MH: I’m afraid there are a lot of poems about war in the new
book, and about living with the fact that one is as an American
complicit— however uncomplicit one feels— in dreadful things
being done all over the planet and in very specific places— in Iraq,
Afghanistan, Palestine. There are also a certain number of poems
that dialogue with other writers, living and dead. Those glosas that
I mentioned are a kind of dialogue. There is a long poem that deals
with the Algerian Francophone writer Kateb Yacine and there are a
couple of poems involving Akhmatova. For the last year-and-ahalf,
I have been learning Arabic, and that has come into the work
I’ve composed several ghazals that have Arabic titles (whose
English appears as the repeated radif) — that’s a form that I’ve
enjoyed for a long time. The Kashmiri-American poet Aga Shahid
Ali was, of course, the uncontested master of the ghazal in English.
But another friend of mine, the poet Suzanne Gardinier did a whole
book of ghazals— Today, published by the Sheep Meadow Press in
2007. For awhile she and I were dialoguing with each other in
ghazals. Another ongoing dialogue in the book is a series of renga
going back and forth between me and the Palestinian-American
poet Deema Shehabi. I write one and she takes something from the
last line and then sends it back, and vice versa. We have about
forty of them. Some are in the new book. I hope that we can also
do a chapbook of these, with the entire collaboration.
MK: Readers who admire your work would like to know more
about why you choose to write in traditional forms.
MH: First of all, any writer chooses the form that she enjoys most,
that she has the most fun with.
MK: And the most luck with.
MH: Exactly. And I’ve always thought that for me at least working
with a fixed form—whether it’s a received form or one that I’ve
made up—brings the unconscious into the work in a more active
way. You have to be doing something other than thinking in a
straightforward linear way, outside the story I want to tell, the
mood I want to establish or the thing I want to describe. There is
something that is nonlinear that has nothing to do with either narrative
or emotion that is acting on the poem, an almost mathematical
(or musical) requirement of syllables, stresses or sounds that have to
be varied or repeated, a rhyme, sometimes all of these things
together—these requirements can knock one’s mind out of the box.
MK: For me it’s the pantoum that says, Come on in! Not always.
Like any form, there’s no guarantee, though.
MH: No, there’s no guarantee. And there’s no particular form I’m
attached to. At any given time I might be writing a sonnet sequence
or writing a series in Hayden Carruth’s “paragraph” form in homage
to him, or, as now, syllabic renga going back and forth. I have
no personal attachment to any of those forms over another and
changing them is a good idea, too.
MK: I want to congratulate you on being named a chancellor of the
Academy of American Poets. What responsibilities come with that
MH: Fortunately not many! It’s an honorific position. The chancellors
select the people who are going to receive the Wallace Stevens
Award and the Academy Fellowship. There’s a small committee of
chancellors who pick these people out of those nominated by the
other chancellors. At the moment I’m not on any of these committees,
but eventually I will be.
MK: How long is one’s tenure?
MH: Six years.
MK: What do you perceive the responsibility of the poet to be—
particularly that of the poet in American society?
MH: Do you think any two writers or readers would answer the
same way? What is the responsibility of the university professor or
of the doctor? People perceive differently their responsibilities
toward themselves, toward those around them and those who have
come before them. I would hate to be in the position of proscribing
what poets ought to write. I am very glad that Adrienne Rich is
Adrienne Rich but I don’t think that every poet must be Adrienne
Rich. Although it would be a damn shame if she and other poets
were not demonstrating that there is no conflict or disparity
between having an exigent social conscience and being an exemplary
MK: Language is action.
MH: Yes, language is a form of action.
MK: It looks to me like French publishers have been remiss in
showcasing women poets, in particular young women poets.
MH: Unfortunately, poetry is much more segregated from the rest
of contemporary literature in France than in the United States, or
in Great Britain, where I am always delighted by the amount of
space the weekend newspaper the Guardian gives to poetry
reviews, interviews with poets, and close readings of poems.
Whereas you could wait eleven months before seeing a review of a
book of poems by a living poet in Le Monde, Libération or Le
Figaro and the same is true for most weekly or monthly magazines
devoted to books. They are all highly literate, it’s not that they are
reviewing mass-market ephemera, but they are reviewing literary
fiction and prose nonfiction only. Poetry is just not part of the conversation.
In France I have more of a sense that poets are only
speaking to each other— not to a large community of readers,
writers and critics.
MK: Recently, there was a brief satirical article in Le Monde about
the Poet Laureateship in Britain, arguing that France doesn’t need a
Poet Laureate, because here everyone is literate, everyone writes
poems, and the politicians piss (ils pissent) pages of literature. You
wouldn’t see that in American newspapers!
MH: There’s an odd dichotomy. Though Sarkozy is certainly the
exception, there have been many highly literate politicians in
France— Dominique de Villepin, Mitterrand, Mendès-France,
Pompidou, even Chirac. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no need
for writers. This comment was made about poetry specifically: it
wasn’t made about who got a Booker prize in Great Britain. There,
the French press might explain that this was the equivalent of the
Prix Goncourt, only with more publicity and remuneration. They
would take it seriously. Whereas naming of a Poet Laureate in
Britain, and Carol Ann Duffy, a woman Poet Laureate at that, is
not serious. (That said, the little journalistic squib was probably
more intended to satirize the former Prime Minister, Dominique de
Villepin, who writes poetry, and writes about poetry, than to make
fun of the British Laureate.)
MK: What’s your sense of how women poets are doing in
American culture? Has the landscape changed since Tillie Olsen
MH: It has changed enormously. It has even changed since the years
I spent editing various literary magazines, including the feminist
magazine 13th Moon, and four years as editor of The Kenyon
Review, in the 1990’s. When I started there, women writers in general
made up perhaps 20 percent of the writers. Writers of colors of
either gender made up something like one percent. I tried to start a
change, with letters of solicitation and special issues, and that did
seem to make a difference.
I think that if one looked at American literary magazines today,
whether they are poetry-only or poetry, essays and fiction, one
would see a fairly good ratio of women to men. And I think the
same thing would be the case if you looked at any publisher’s
poetry list, whether it was Knopf or Norton or a small press like
Red Hen or Ahsahata. Although until fairly recently Farrar Straus
didn’t have any women poets. Recently they have taken on a couple
of younger women.
Gallimard, on the other hand, does not have one living woman poet
among the poets that they publish. That goes both for their Série
Blanche, which would be the equivalent of an American hardcover
book, to the extremely popular Poésie Gallimard series, which is an
inexpensive paperback series that includes both classical literature in
French and translation, and a few contemporaries, all Gallimard
authors. There too, there is not one living woman poet, either writing
in French or in translation. There are some dead ones:
Akhmatova, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Marina Tsvetaeva,
Louise Labé, Marcelline Desbordes-Valmore. (Thanks to Claire
Malroux, Dickinson’s work has become important in France.)
There are other French publishers, like Flammarion, for example,
with a much better record. Flammarion is Marie Etienne’s publisher,
and also, at various times, that of Isabelle Garron, Ariane
Dreyfus, Sandra Moussempé, Sophie Loiseau.
MK: Who are you reading now?
MH: I am reading so many things at once. I am finishing a novel,
Vaste est la prison, by the Algerian writer Assia Djebbar. I’m reading
John Berger’s new epistolary novel From A to Zed, and an
anthology of classical Arab poetry, edited by the Syrian-Lebanese
poet Adonis. I’m reading it in French, though I have some bilingual
volumes as well. I just finished a novel by Leslie Kaplan, a French
American writer who came to France when she was two, and
writes in French entitled Mon Amérique commence en Pologne. I
am lucky enough to have the just-published Canadian edition of
Mavis Gallant’s uncollected short stories, Going Ashore, and
Bloodshot Monochrome, a new book of poems by the young
British-Nigerian poet Patience Agbabi, who is at once a “performance
poet” and a real virtuoso of fixed forms.
MK: Soon you’ll be able to read the Arabic poetry in the original.