Poetry Santa Cruz
Poetry Santa Cruz

Geoff Brock

An Interview by Maggie Paul with Geoff Brock, poet and translator of Italian poet Cesare Pavese

Maggie Paul:  How did you come to translate Pavese?

Geoff Brock:  I began reading him in 1984 when I was living in Florence and learning Italian.  At that time I knew very little about Italian poetry, and I remember browsing the poetry section in a bookstore, looking for a book to buy; I settled on a slim Pavese volume (Verra la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi / Death Will Come and Will Have Your Eyes) for two reasons: it had the most startling title, and it was very cheap.  I began translating him as a way of reading him more closely, as a way of "coming to terms" with his poetry.  It wasn't until years later that it even occurred to me that others might be interested in them.

MP:  What distinguishes Pavese from other poets of his generation?

GB:  Pavese is a singular figure in Italian poetry.  In the 1930s, when the leading Italian poets (Montale, Ungaretti, Quasimodo) were writing in a relatively obscure "hermetic" style, Pavese was writing what he thought of as "short stories in verse"—accessible narrative poems that told stories about people who interested him: farmers, factory workers, drunks, prostitutes, lonely men.

MP:  What, in your opinion, constitutes a good translation?

GB:  A good translation should breathe on its own and not require the original text as a heart and lung machine.  And yet it should find ways to give expression to the most important features (formal as well as semantic) of the original text.  All that is part of what might be called fidelity, which is often confused with literal accuracy.  Pedants are fond of pointing out that perfect translation is impossible.  Of course it is—in this, it is like everything else that's worth doing.

MP:  How does the process of translation enhance a poet's practice?

GB:  It takes you out of yourself, out of old habits and predilections, and forces you to see and do new things or old things in new ways. Also, it is the most intimate, engaged mode of reading (translators, unlike critics, must take into account every word), and as such it enhances a poet's practice in the way that any close reading does.

MP:  In the introduction to Disaffections you mention your preference for a translation that communicates the energy and sensibility of the original over a literal, word by word, translation.  How does one achieve this?

GB:  I suppose one achieves this by first coming to an understanding of the particular energy and sensibility of the original text.  Poets don't choose their words exclusively (or even primarily) for their literal sense—this is one of the things that makes them poets rather than philosophers or journalists.  And so it is misguided to think that a translation that privileges literal, semantic accuracy to the exclusion of other elements and energies could be "faithful" to the original poem.

MP:  I am struck by the directness of the speaker in such poems as "Patricia Lost" "Move," and "The Day Before Their Suicide."  You have a pointed sense of humor which is almost tragic/comic.  Can you talk about that?

GB:  These are rather old poems of mine, but I suppose my sense of humor hasn't changed much.  I wouldn't call myself a "humorous poet," but I like humor in poems—I think it's much underrated.  But you're right that my humor generally springs from situations that are not ostensibly humorous.  I suppose I think the world is essentially a tragicomic place, both risible and terrible—just look at George Bush.

MP:  How long have you lived in San Francisco? How would you characterize the literary culture there?

GB:  I've lived here only 8 months—I love it.  I can't say that I know the literary culture here very well yet, but it seems very lively and rich.  In the Mission alone, where I live, there is a wealth of outstanding poets and fiction writers.

MP:  With whom are you studying with as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford? What is your impression of that program?

GB:  It's a privilege to have a fellowship that gives me so much time to write—I feel incredibly fortunate.  The program has, in just about every way, exceeded my expectations, which were high.

Geoff Brock read with Rob Wilson Tuesday, April 8, 2003 at 6:00 pm at Bookshopn Santa Cruz.

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