Posts by Kelsi Vanada

Translation Tuesday: An excerpt of Marie Silkeberg’s The Cities

"a test of the heart. the membranes. could come in the morning. sleep. a measure of freedom."

For the last two weeks, we presented the nonfiction and fiction winners of our annual Close Approximations translation contest, picked by Margaret Jull Costa and Ottilie Mulzet respectively. This week, we present the poetry winners: Swedish poet Marie Silkeberg and her co-translator Kelsi Vanada for their rendition of Silkeberg’s rapid-fire prose poetry, presented in squares, after the black squares of Malevich. Judge Michael Hofmann, one of the six most esteemed literary translators working today according to The Wall Street Journal, whittled his selection down to five entries. “Thereafter, things might have gone differently, all my choices were so incomparably dissimilar. In the end, I asked myself what poems would I most like to see published, to read a book of, to live with and deepen my understanding of, and that gave me my winner.”

—The editors at Asymptote


said his name. to whom. why. a crossing point. a home. army hotel. attachment building zone. adoptions. Hanoi. soldiers. infants. storm’s coming. we were at the red river. saw a wholly naked bleeding man wrapped in blue plastic. two policemen followed him. humidity rises. after the rain. storm now over Ha Long Bay. literature’s temple. the black space he falls into. rain falls over the streets. people wander in large plastic sheets. hurry. a Chinese man. or Vietnamese. wide round eyes. when I turn around we look each other in the eye. a glance. a glancing moment. double stage. the actors laugh. at our naiveté. examine how it feels. to be able to feel such confidence. to tell a sad story about a family in peacetime. in the morning. in half-sleep. in precisely his eyes. it is raining. I had no luck finding any cigarettes. dial 209 he says. to order. is not the heart the organ of repetition writes M. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. do you lose. or find. so many people everywhere. at each task. in clusters. taxi drivers waiters flower vendors. high humidity. the seven eight month-old children. the expectant parents. how does it sound. she asks the Vietnamese actors. the village you come from. big clusters. flocks of mopeds move among each other. rush between the cars. rapid movements of sadness tenderness run over her face. one pillar pagoda. disgust and pleasure. desire and anger. delta. the black square. darkness. at six o’clock already. begins to fall READ MORE…

Opening the Voice to the Other Sound: A Conversation with Marie Silkeberg

"I believe you must invest your own body in relation to otherness. You can’t choose what’s 'other' to you."

In addition to winning this year’s Close Approximations contest (in poetry, judged by Michael Hofmann), Swedish poet Marie Silkeberg is the author of seven books of poetry and many other works, including essays about and translations of Inger Christensen and Rosmarie Waldrop. She also works on sound compositions and makes poetry films, often in conjunction with other artists. She was born in Denmark and teaches at the University of Southern Denmark.

I translated eight of Marie’s poems into English while she was completing a residency in Iowa City as part of the International Writing Program in the fall of 2015.  The poems form a series called “Städerna” (“The Cities”), and comprise one section of the book Till Damaskus (published in Stockholm by Albert Bonniers Förlag in 2014), a collaboration between Silkeberg and Syrian-born Palestinian poet Ghayath Almadhoun (now based in Sweden). The book explores city spaces across the world and asks questions about belonging, immigration, and identity. As we collaborated on the translations, Marie described her process and her goals for her poetry, as well as her goals for translation. In this conversation, I asked Marie to tell more about some of the initial ideas she shared with me during the translation process.


Kelsi Vanada: The eight poems in “Städerna” are written in what you’ve called “blocks.” They are composed by many short phrases, separated by periods, which are the only kind of punctuation that mark the poems. In addition, there is no capitalization in the Swedish poems, and many of the phrases separted by periods seem to either extend the thought of the previous phrase, or bleed into the following phrase. Why the choice of this form?

Marie Silkeberg: I’d like to revise that, actually. I want to call them “squares.” They are related to the black square of Malevich. He was a Russian painter, early 20th century. He was extreme; he made black squares on white. It is the extreme part of representation that I’m interested in. Some of the first poems I wrote were in these squares, and I didn’t know what I was doing. The space of a poem is a geometric figure for me. Or the movement in a geometric figure. These squares were invaded by a circular movement; it was a feeling of a circle inside a square.  READ MORE…