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Transom:
How did you come to translate Šalamun’s work?

Levin:
I met Tomaž Šalamun in January 1987, when we were both resident fellows at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Tomaž, who had read some of my poems, approached me on a snow-covered path as I was walking back to my studio one afternoon. We started talking, and he asked me what I was working on; I told him that I was struggling with a poem concerning Jonah, to which he replied, pointing at a ring I always wore (a Florentine stone mosaic depicting a dove on a background of black onyx), “Do you have a Bible?” I told him that I had one in my studio, among the many other books I had shipped to MacDowell; and he said I should look again at the Book of Jonah. We spoke a bit more, and he told me that he strongly connected to my poems, that they made him think of the architect Borromini. He said I was not an American poet, though of course he knew I was an American. We spoke at some length in the bitter cold, and for the rest of the time our residencies overlapped we engaged in marvelously intense conversations every evening after dinner. Of course I was eager to read his work. Not knowing any Slovenian I looked at some translations, which at that point most likely were those done by Michael Biggins, Anselm Hollo, or Charles Simic. When I returned to my studio I opened up to the Book of Jonah, which I had read often enough without ever paying attention to the introductory note, where I learned to my amazement that the name Jonah means “dove.” So that is why Tomaz was pointing to the ring on my finger, a ring whose beautiful image haunted me in nightmares from which I awoke believing that the bird had flown away, leaving behind a blinding darkness. The thrill of this connection further intensified when I discovered Tomaž’s poem, “Jonah.” That initial encounter confirmed that there was a deep affinity between us.

Perhaps my intuitive connection to the force field of Tomaž’s poems made him feel that I one day could collaborate with him on translations and made me receptive to the possibility from the moment he proposed it. But years before I ever began to translate Šalamun’s work, he had translated a group of my poems without even telling me he had done so (it was a surprise, a gift from one poet to another). Some of these poems ended up being published in 1989 in an issue of Literatura, one of Slovenia’s preeminent literary journals; the issue included a feature on work by ten American poets selected and introduced by Aleš Debeljak, who soon became one of Slovenia’s leading poets and an internationally recognized cultural critic. One thing led to the next (certainly this invitation must have been influenced by Tomaž Šalamun and Aleš Debeljak) and I was invited to attend the International PEN Conference in Bled, Slovenia in May of 1993. It is easy for me to say that I fell in love with the country at first sight. It is also true that an immersion in the landscape and the sounds of the language gave me a more visceral understanding of the complex worlds shaping not only Tomaž’s poetry but the work of many other extraordinary writers whose homeland is Slovenia and Slovene.

Not long after visiting Bled, I was invited to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship to Slovenia. I lived in Ljubljana in 1995 from June until October, traveling throughout the country, usually in the company of writers and artists I met though Tomaž and his incredible wife, the painter Metka Krašovec. I had many chances to meet with Slovenian poets, and at some point embarked on collaborative translations with a few of them. With Tomaž Šalamun, the process became an ongoing one—that is, a few years later, when he was living in New York City as the Cultural Attaché to the Slovenian Consulate, we met regularly, sometimes several hours each week, translating a small number of poems in each session. In some cases, not many words would change from Tomaž’s raw English version to the finished translation; but we would easily spend an hour or two on each poem in order to convey the syntax and rhythms and semantics as closely as possible, or to find analogues in English (an effort, sometimes, at the impossible) for allusions or colloquialisms or metaphors. Tomaž would show me his literal translation in English, read me the poem in Slovenian, and then we would go to work.

Transom:
What relationships do you see between Šalamun’s work and your own?

Levin:
It is difficult to describe the effect of Šalamun’s poems on my imagination and on my own poetic sensibility: I could start by mentioning the Dionysian power and the juxtaposition of extreme subjectivity with vivid historical allusion. The immediacy of his voice, a presence that leaves its mark even in the roughest of translations, cannot be explained logically, though it is an experience many others have had by now. This is not the place to explicate Tomaž’s work or explore his style, but I will say that I felt an immediate identification with the persona and energy of many of his poems, despite our coming of age in radically different times and places. And I identified with the sheer nerve and liberating joyousness in his work—a freedom of imagination that seemed uncannily familiar, bringing me back to my earliest intuitions and perceptions while hurling me forward into an utterly new aesthetic experience.

From childhood, I had a conception of the poet’s role as being vatic, oracular, and of the poet’s voice, however private in its utterance, occupying a public space. Perhaps seeing Robert Frost on television at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration had a subliminal effect; but I suspect this only confirmed a sense I had already developed as a result of early reading and from hearing my parents recite poems from books or from memory (my father frequently intoned stanzas without any provocation or warning). The urgency to make a poem began and still begins as a physical sensation. I can also confess here that when I read Tomaž’s “Folk Song,” which begins, “Every true poet is a monster,” there was a shock of recognition, for as a child I was sometimes called a monster for saying the things I thought and for being so single-mindedly focused on writing, so sure of my destiny, so stubbornly believing that poetry was of essential value. Though my parents seemed to love poetry, they were alarmed (to put it mildly) when they realized I might become a poet. Tomaž’s fearless declarative statements encapsulate the immense weight of any act of creation as well as the comic self-awareness a poet—or any person—needs in order to stay true to one’s calling. Spending time in Slovenia, meeting not only artists and writers but people from all walks of life, I was exposed to a culture that validated poetry and the poet in a way I had always envisioned.

My poems have always been lyric in nature, generated by sound and rhythm and image more than any clear narrative, although a shadow of narrative evolves in the process of the poem’s unfolding. This is another reason why Tomaž’s work meant so much for me from the start, because at the time I met him it was rare for me to find someone who understood what I was doing, what I was trying to do in language. He grasped my technique and the metaphysical nature of my work and the inner workings of my method. Naturally, I gravitated toward a poet who seemed so “other” in some ways, yet with whom I found such a kinship.

Transom:
Your poem in our current issue is deceptively slippery, couching in fairly straightforward language an obsession with what’s not being said and with what can’t be seen. “Journal” articulates those limits in terms of privacy, and we wonder: Does one “keep a secret alive” by just not quite telling it? Is that also how one keeps a poem alive? Or put another way, who is the addressee in this poem?

Levin:
Originally, my sense of the speaker of “Journal” was the journal (or logbook or diary) itself, as an object. Only in a very last set of revisions did the first person singular enter the opening stanza of the poem; in all previous drafts the “I” appears only in the poem’s closing parenthetical statement. But all along, my sense of the addressee was anyone or any creature capable of finding and reading this human artifact. In the first drafts of the poem there was no punctuation at all—only a series of blank spaces separating pauses of breath and thought; and sometimes I wonder whether introducing commas has undermined the fissures I wanted to make manifest, and which served as visual evidence of whatever is missing because it is secret or has been eroded or excised. For now, though, I’m trusting that the words themselves, the very syntax and phrase structure, are suggestive of the lacunae that are the central mystery of the poem and probably its generating source.

All poems, I believe, are secretive by nature (though not necessarily “private”); language itself is secreting something fleeting and real, and the drive to make a poem involves in part the desire to make palpable something that seems impossible to articulate. Through pulse and image, through associations of sound and meaning, something is uttered that the poet can barely grasp or understand. “Journal” explores how little of what any person experiences can be recorded. It also faces how even an elaborate record of one’s life may eventually reflect less and less of what one does, what one feels, and what one thinks—because one may change how much one may want to conceal or reveal of oneself and one’s history; or because one has decided to “remove” certain information; or because information one wanted to reveal to the world has been removed from the world by someone who wanted to suppress it; or because time itself intervenes and the material on which the words appear decays or is destroyed.

Somehow, dwelling on and within this disturbing understanding—of how much of what we think we will leave behind may indeed disappear, be lost or annihilated—led to a quite terrifying vision of the death of the planet Earth. I had no idea the poem would be moving in that direction when I began it, though that move looks inevitable in retrospect. My sense of keeping secrets alive does not depend on withholding anything as much as grasping the facts of the natural world, where information invisible to the eye or inaccessible to other senses is encoded yet translatable (if we learn the language that generates it or in which it resides). Everything alive keeps a secret, and as a species we are constantly in touch with the secret inner life of ourselves and of the world of nature. When I look at a tree I feel connected to it, but I don’t really understand how or why; I know the tree is keeping alive its secret and I want it to reveal itself to me just as I want to be revealed to it or someone else. But we cannot reveal without concealing: the word “reveal” means to re-veil. Remember Casper the Friendly Ghost? We only see him when he puts that sheet back on. One doesn’t have to try not to tell something for it to be secret; every time we unveil something a new secret appears. This is evident in the fields of biology, physics, or chemistry, and it is just as true in the field of poetry. The conceit of the poem, the analogy that “Journal” ends up drawing, can crudely be reduced to saying that the physical condition of the written record anyone leaves behind is analogous to the state of the earth after the death of the sun. As if the globe were to become, in the distant future, a token, a memento mori—of what? Does the unnamable become a divinity by virtue of being unnamable? The poem’s most intimate utterance may be the confession (in parenthesis) that whoever is speaking or writing these words, whoever has left this document, does not want to leave whatever place or state of being he or she currently inhabits, does not want to leave the particular eternity of a particular present tense. Why this is so is never said. Maybe my instinctively introverted, private nature precludes me from specifying a scenario or reason eliciting this desire; or maybe I am a bit shy about admitting my own bliss. And this brings us back to why Tomaž is so electric, so central, so affirming, in the way that Blake and Whitman and Dickinson are, and in the way only he is, in how what seems most public translates into the private, and what is most individual translates into a communion of joy.

Sample Translations:
Thumbscrew
Parthenon West Review