Alexander Dickow has been Asymptote’s Communications Manager since April 2017. He is also a talented translator: in 2018, he received a prestigious PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to translate Sylvie Kandé’s Neverending Quest, and was a runner-up in Asymptote’s 2013-2014 Close Approximations Translation Contest. As a scholar at Virginia Tech, Alexander Dickow specializes in French and Francophone literatures and cultures. And as if all of these activities didn’t keep him busy enough, he’s also a respected bilingual poet. He published his very first book, Caramboles, a French/English bilingual poetry collection, with publisher Argol in 2008, and a French poetry collection, Rhapsodie curieuse, with Louise Bottu in 2017. His first poetry collection in English, Trial Balloons, appeared in 2012 with Corrupt Press, and his latest work, Appetites, has just been published in 2018 by MadHat Press. As a bilingual poet herself, Asymptote’s Assistant Managing Editor (Issue Production) Lou Sarabadzic wanted to know more about his views on multilingualism, poetry, and the creative process.
Lou Sarabadzic: Your latest collection, Appetites, has just been published by MadHat Press. In a 2016 interview, you said that you were “fatally allergic to titles.” However, with such a strong theme connecting your poems, eloquently announced by a single word, “Appetites,” I have to ask: what came first? Was it the collection’s title? The idea? Or individual poems which happened to share this common theme?
Alexander Dickow: The poems came first—I wrote a whole slew in a short period, maybe a month, with the culinary themes. It occurred to me at some point that more or less everything I’ve done is related in some way to eating: my first book was Caramboles, which designates the starfruit, among other things, and it contains a culinary poem or two also, and Rhapsodie curieuse, in French, is based around the central emblem of the persimmon. My first publisher found the title Caramboles, but the others were my choice. So I guess what came first was the obsession—then the poems, and then the actual title. Of course, food is what I refer to elsewhere as a “paravent” topic—i.e. it’s a vehicle for talking about something else, much like love or politics as subjects of poems.
LS: You know that translation is a real passion for Asymptote’s readers. I’m sure they’d love to hear you talk about the relationship between poetry and translation in your work. For starters, let’s focus on Appetites; the two epigraphs of your collection are Hebrew fragments from Psalms and Qohelet. The fact that you do not provide a translation is of course significant. What led you to choose these fragments?
AD: I wanted them in the original language—I’m not sure why I didn’t provide translations. The first one is from Psalms—from the same text with the famous “taste and see” quote, but it’s actually a fragment of a verse that says, “His praise shall always be in my mouth.” The second one, which comes from Qohelet, says more or less that man is condemned to work and never satisfy his appetites. Why didn’t I translate? I haven’t the foggiest idea, but for some reason I needed them in the Hebrew.
One epigraph is at the top—having to do with praise and with our higher appetites, our appetite for godliness—the other at the bottom, with the opposing negative implications. I have an aphorism that I wrote related to this: “At times, the poem intends only to capture a movement of the soul. A thrust of clarity, sudden dejection, without content nor theme. Sinking, rising: spiritual life is reducible to these mechanisms, trivial and sterile, and absolutely vital.” In other words, it seems to me that high and low are in some sense programmed into human affect, hence our evocation of the lower urges and the higher aspirations, if you like.
LS: When you speak of high and low, top and bottom, I think of four poems in Appetites, which appear one after the other: ”Ascent,” “Descent,” “Crescendo dal niente,” and “Diminuendo (Morendo).” This structure reveals a strong interest in symmetry (and indeed asymmetry) in your poetic work. For instance, you published the bilingual English/French collection Caramboles with a French publisher, Argol. Is translation a way to explore (a)symmetry? Or is poetry itself a way to explore asymmetry?
AD: Definitely. I tend to create in pairs, as you’ve noticed. I don’t think I’m a dualistic thinker, but it suits me that each poem should find its complement, either in the other language, or as another poem. Appetites in fact exists in French (minus one or two I haven’t gotten around to making into French versions) and some of the poems in Appetites were written in French first. I was never able to translate my book Rhapsodie curieuse into English in a way that satisfied me, but ultimately I like the idea of having the same works in both languages. And unlike Beckett, I enjoy the work of self-translation (he used to complain endlessly about this aspect of his work).
Asymmetry is fascinating to me insofar as it still alludes to or approximates symmetry. For instance, I enjoy parallel series with syntactic variations that disturb the parallelism. The reader senses the absence of an expected symmetry, and that expectation is what makes the asymmetry interesting and effective. In real life, perfect symmetry doesn’t typically happen. If you make a perfectly symmetrical face digitally, or so I’m told, it looks funny and unnatural, because real faces aren’t quite symmetrical. The organic is asymmetrical—but it approximates symmetry, exists in a balance with symmetry.
LS: You touched upon the question of self-translation, and said that some poems in Appetites were first written in French. Why is French so important to your creative process? Have some of these poems been published in French first, perhaps in an earlier form, in journals, magazines, blogs?
AD: Caramboles came out as a bilingual collection—which is arranged so as to obscure which is the translation and which the original. French is just as crucial as English to my creative process, and my work is better known (and more widely published) in French than in English, for whatever reason. I’m a two-headed poet, one French, the other Anglophone. For better or worse!
I have a series of poems mostly in French for now, as only a few have been made into English versions. They have appeared here and there: In Place de la Sorbonne, and forthcoming in Babel heureuse. So yes, absolutely, I publish in French often! I have one real serious fan in English, Dan Weeks, who has been publishing the English work for a number of years in his New Jersey-related journal This Broken Shore. I learned French at about twelve years old, and it’s been central to my life ever since: French picked me, I suppose, but twelve is fairly late to reach the level I seem to have (I can often pass for French, they tell me). Needless to say, I think Chomsky’s black box notions about second language acquisition are a bunch of baloney. If one’s identity is plastic enough late in life, there’s no reason one can’t totally assimilate another language/culture—it’s just rare for identities to remain plastic enough for that later in life. Nothing biological about it.
LS: You mentioned Beckett earlier. Are there any other bilingual writers, contemporary or otherwise, who influence your work, or your thinking about translation?
AD: Oh certainly! Jody Pou, for instance, writes multilingual French and English poetry. I like Eugene Ostashevsky’s work sometimes—not always, but when he’s good, he’s great, and it’s always at least of conceptual interest. And there are many others. I studied under Boubacar Boris Diop in grad school, who writes in Wolof as well as French. There are definitely a bunch I’m forgetting at the moment, but you get the idea. I think poetry and translation have always been intertwined: think of how important translation was for Du Bellay in the Défense et illustration de la langue française [The Defense and Illustration of the French Language, written in 1549], for instance!
LS: Now, we can’t talk about poetry and multilingualism (and how interdependent they are) without discussing sounds and musicality. The work on sounds is essential to your poetry. I was particularly struck by “Meal,” for instance, where I genuinely could hear the food being cooked: “Fig reduction, sautéed intervals/With boundless crusts and round rinds,” or tiny splashes making their way through the air in “A Kind of Fruit”: “Split that droplet splendour to release/Yourself a fruit whose frequent leaflets/Peel away a layered marrow.” There is also a vivid scene of devouring in “Mess Hall,” whose sounds and internal music build a worrying atmosphere for the reader. Do you often read your poems aloud? Is hearing them a necessary part of the creation—or editing—process?
AD: Haha, well I don’t quite have a gueuloir à la Flaubert (which is what Flaubert called the space where he would read his work out loud to aid with revision), but I definitely listen internally for rhythm and sound. I find much of contemporary poetry too flat rhythmically, and I look for the inner tension that holds together the lines of my favorite poets in English—Wyatt, Skelton, Donne, G. M. Hopkins . . . Or in French, Corbière, Mallarmé, Apollinaire and others. In a good line of verse, the whole line sounds almost like a single word, as though held together from one end to the other with a metal strand. A Mallarmean notion, in part, but in Hopkins too. And so much poetry abandons that inner tension that I look for.
LS: Definitely an appetite for rhythm, then! Speaking of which, in “Five Courses and a Digestif,” your use of rhymes contributes to create a parody of the menus we may find in gastronomic restaurants. This made me think about class, and about meals as a social and sociological experience. Was it one of your interests with Appetites?
AD: Not consciously. I grew up with little class consciousness, as many Americans do, but I do think it’s important, and probably already encoded in the language of Appetites, in one way or another (but how, I’m not sure). Gastronomic menus always use varietal names to sound fancier, and that’s definitely a class marker—saying “arugula” instead of “lettuce” has “chic” written all over it.
LS: In addition to hunger, the notion of thirst also runs across the collection. If poètes maudits come to mind (I have a very French cultural background myself, as you know!), with the aesthetics of alcohol, I was also struck by how often your poems referred to our environment, especially to the liquid element: the sea, the ocean, rain, snow, or in other words, our earth’s thirst. Would you say that ecology played a role in putting this collection together?
AD: It’s a constant preoccupation and bound to be a part of it somehow. Once again, I’m not certain quite how, but I get very anxious about our possible impending extinction, or the fact that my grandchildren may never see a living dragonfly. It’s constant heartache. Our environment is part of the richness of the world, the source and the object of our desire, and to see that endlessly being impoverished just kills me.
Speaking of dragonflies, as a kid I thought of becoming an entomologist. I’ve been fascinated by bugs—especially spiders—from a very young age. I remember a summer in the Camargue with family, and they sprayed for mosquitoes while we were there—but it killed all the dragonflies, and for several days they were everywhere, slowly dying, in obvious agony. Pesticides should be abolished once and for all, as far as I’m concerned.
LS: This concern for the environment being so important to you, is poetry an expression of hope, or of anger? Or both? If I go a bit further, and to come back to the Hebrew epigraphs, was writing this book an act of faith—in any sense of the word? In “Fragment of a Meditation,” the narrator directly addresses God, and says: “Untie my heart into Your Torah/And rise my soul within Your laws.”
AD: Faith, hope and anger are all involved. The poem you refer to is a rewriting of a short meditation from Jewish liturgy. “Putting down the head” is part of Tachanun, the daily penitential prayer, during which you lay your head down on one arm. I could be a much better Jew, of course, but all these ritual things are important to me, as well as many of the beliefs behind them. I struggle with it ideologically, as we all do. My friend Patricia tells me that Judaism is “a religion for men,” and I wish it were more egalitarian—and that’s just for starters. But I’m a believer.
The angriest poem of the collection is “To a Politician,” of course.
LS: There is this—rather narrow and elitist—idea that poetry makes the simple obscure. What is fascinating in your work is that it often does the opposite. For instance, a “fruitless search,” really becomes, through your writing, a search during which the narrator, or the readers, find no fruit . . . You told me that “Minutes of Fruitless Search,” the poem’s title, was a calque of the French bureaucratic expression “procès verbal de recherche infructueuse.” The obscure and bureaucratic, through etymology and imagery, suddenly acquires clarity in the poem. Is there anything you’d like to say about this linguistic and indeed philosophic process?
AD: Well, first of all, I’m tickled at how you frame this! I often seem to get tagged as a bit highfalutin, but what’s at the heart of much of it is pretty immediate and simple, from my perspective. I like complication and intricacy, but sometimes a poem is just about that up-down impulse I was talking about, like “Two Human Movements.” This might be one of the more “difficult” poems in the collection, but really I was just thinking in terms of the human tendency to either withdraw or advance, fight or retreat, and all of the implications of those alternative existential postures, if you like. So there’s always a simplicity of premise, even when there’s verbal intricacy, and I think that’s important. A lot of poetry these days has given up on all semblance of organic unity, but I haven’t yet—which makes me, as Toby Altman said in a review, still a modernist, rather than fully postmodern, at least in that one respect. Here’s another fragment from my aphorisms: “To love a poem of labyrinths and curtains, yes. But I can love just as much a poem so clear it displays nothing but blankness. A poem about which nothing might be said. Lullabies are closest to this ideal, perhaps.”
LS: Last but not least: do you intend to self-translate Appetites into French?
AD: It’s already largely done! There are just two or three missing, and at some point I’ll definitely send it on to a French publisher—if they’ll have me!
Alexander Dickow is the author of Caramboles (Paris: Argol Editions, 2008), a collection of poems in French and English, and Le Poète innombrable: Blaise Cendrars, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob (Paris: Hermann, 2015), a scholarly work. He lived in France as a Fulbright scholar in 2003-2004, and subsequently completed his cotutelle dissertation on French modernism in 2011 (Rutgers/Paris 8). He has published scholarship, poetry and translations in many journals abroad and in the US, and teaches the language, literature and culture of France and Francophone countries at Virginia Tech. Buy your copy of Alexander Dickow’s poetry collection Appetites here. For more information about past, present, and future work, you can browse his website.
Lou Sarabadzic is Assistant Managing Editor (Issue Production) at Asymptote. She is a French bilingual poet, blogger, and novelist living in England. She has published two books in French: a novel and a poetry collection. In January 2018, she received the Dot Award for Digital Literature for the #NERDSproject, to which you can contribute by following the project on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. Lou’s poems, in French and English, have appeared in a range of publications including Gutter, Morphrog, and A) GLIMPSE) OF). Follow Lou on Twitter @lousarabadzic and visit her blogs predictedprose.com and telpere.com
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