An interview with David Hadbawnik

Daniel C. Remein

David Hadbawnik is a poet, translator, and scholar whose study of pre-modern language and literature and interest in twentieth-century avant-garde poetics yields an enviable literary intelligence. Hadbawnik holds a Ph.D. in medieval literature from SUNY Buffalo and is the author of a number of books of poetry, including Field Work: Notes, Songs, and Poems, 1997-2010 (BlazeVOX), Translations from Creeley (Sardines Press), and Ovid in Exile (Interbirth Books), as well as essays on Edmund Spenser and Geoffrey Chaucer. He now teaches at the American University of Kuwait.

I have known David for some time, at first through academic conferences, then by working with him on the publication of Thomas Meyer’s stunning experimental translation of
Beowulf, and finally, as co-editors at eth Press: Postmedieval Poetries. Since, along with Sean Reynolds, Hadbawnik co-edited selections of Jack Spicer’s translation of Beowulf (CUNY Lost and Found), Hadbawnik and I have had an ongoing conversation about translation and less mainstream traditions of twentieth-century and contemporary poetics. Hadbawnik’s translation of books I-VI of Virgil’s Aeneid (Shearsman, 2015), however, pushes the discussion of his interrelated practices of translation, poetics, and scholarship into essential contemporary debates in each of these fields. We corresponded by email between Boston and Kuwait about how experimental translation, medieval studies, and the poetics of Jack Spicer mutually inform each other in Hadbawnik’s translation practices.

David, in an interview you gave with poet Kent Johnson for Lana Turner you respond to a question as to why you produced yet another translation of the Aeneid by explaining, “Why another Aeneid? Precisely because we don't need one.” There are enough straight translations out there that one is “liberated” to do something different. I’d like to open this conversation by spinning this a little bit. First, you are trained as a medievalist—and I presume your apprenticeship in Latin was undertaken at least in part in service to your work in that discipline. In what ways does the Aeneid, as a classical text, interest you in your capacity as a medievalist? Does your training in vernacular medieval literatures and medieval traditions of translation inform your approach to the Aeneid? Second, do you think you would find yourself less adventurous if you were translating, say, a relatively obscure Medieval Latin text? That is, is the canonicity and ubiquity of the Aeneid just an encouraging factor or a strict condition of translating in the more adventurous line of translation experiments from Modernism and the New American Poets?

Translating the Aeneid is an exercise in failure, and I want to fail in new and interesting ways. What I mean by that is there’s no way to get it “right.” You’re not going to translate a poem of this magnitude once and for all. Having encountered it in the Latin as a medievalist, and alongside Medieval Latin texts, as you suggest, put Virgil in that context for me; certainly the poem looms over everything about the medieval world that we study, from the cultural heritage to the epic structure to the language and legends that make up the poetry. In that way, the Aeneid is almost a medieval text; or at least, I feel as though I can use my medievalist training as a cat’s paw to pull it closer than it would be if I were viewing it as a strictly “classical” poem. For example, I think of the way poets like Chaucer translated parts of Virgil and Ovid, hailing them as “authorities” with all that implied even while re-interpreting and blending them in with other verse. There’s a measure of respect, even veneration, but it’s shot through with playfulness and a blurring of lines between the acts of invention and translation, and that’s a spirit I strive to recapture.

Would I be less adventurous translating a relatively obscure Medieval Latin text? Yes, I would probably feel more of a burden to preserve whatever of the author’s intention I could discern, and stick closer to the form and structure. I’ve often wanted to translate the Archpoet or some other medieval lyrics or hymns, as I think it would be fun and present a whole different set of translation problems (e.g., what do you do with rhyming Latin?). But I wonder if that sense of fealty to the original text is misplaced no matter how obscure and previously un-translated that text is. In a way, shouldn’t the goal be to generate as many different versions of a text as possible, to tease out every potential reading? I would love it if a reader encountered my translation and thought, “Does it really say that? That can’t be right,” and got inspired to look into the Latin and see for themselves, and hopefully come up with their own version.

You refer here to the freedom of not having to get the poem “right” because a poem of this magnitude can’t be translated once and for all. I want to probe two things about that just a little further.

1) It is interesting to me that you refer to the poem’s magnitude, since this can also be read as an aesthetic term in Latin (magnitudo), referring to a kind of magisterial vastness or greatness. Do you find such aesthetics in the poem, and where? I’m wondering about this because your translation feels less like an exercise in obedience to a classical reading of the Aeneid as triumphant propaganda than an account of a poem that is willing to expose its own embarrassments even as you still go to bat for the points at which Virgil might be more intelligently wrestling with how to narrate the violence of empire.

2) Relatedly, how have you been thinking through the relationship of your translation to the undeniable magnitude of this text in the western literary canon? I mean—your translation does not read as mainstream contemporary American workshop verse. Does the fact that a less mainstream contemporary idiom can tap into the translatability of this text make some implicit argument about either Virgil’s poetics in the past or historical claims to the poem’s canonicity?

Magnitude: excellence, vastness, extent (of influence) is what I’m thinking about here, but again, tracing the long shadow of the poem as it filters through the Middle Ages and the dawn of written/epic poetry in English; one could argue that it is the first poem in English, especially if we assume Latin literacy among people in what would eventually become England, and its influence on the author or authors of Beowulf, and if we take Pound’s argument—that Gavin Douglas’s Eneados is better than anything by Chaucer—seriously. I believe that the poem does aspire to that sort of magnitude, arguably including the aim of “triumphalist propaganda.” In other words it takes itself seriously as a great, important, foundational poem; and instead of pointing to particular moments I would emphasize style. Virgil gives full value on every element of the poem, taking excruciating care whether he’s describing a shipwreck or a battle or a boat race, or the obscure origins of a custom that’s been preserved in contemporary Rome, or a star rising or the wind blowing a certain way, or the interior life of a woman scorned. He might not be equally good at handling all of these things but he’s not going to skimp on any of them. It’s a poem that strives to render the world whole.

But there’s so much else going on, too. There’s a vast unconscious of the poem, in which a lot of those things you mention are perhaps latent and bubble up to the surface. Embarrassment, doubts, conflicts about the absurdities and inescapable violence of empire, the broken promises and betrayals, the sheer stupid luck it takes to found Rome even with the headwind of divine prophecy behind you. The guilt of empire, even; the guilt of the victor. So I think this is where my energy is focused, teasing out these threads, undercutting somewhat explicitly that official verse “magnitude,” which perhaps explains the less-mainstream idiom in my own version. But it’s a dance, because there are moments of awe and beauty that I want to render in a beautiful way, so I’m not going for lampoon or parody, either. The implicit argument is that the Aeneid is, or can be, more than a court poem, that it goes beyond simply propping up empire. It is and can be something that works against those perhaps conscious aims—certainly in its reverberations through literary history it enters into something like a folk consciousness; it’s entertainment as much as it’s a moral lesson, warning as much as model, and so on.

One element of your translation that I think almost all the other reviews and interviews have also focused on is your use of capitals. They show up first in your section 2 of book II when the ghost of Hector yells at Aeneas to “RUN,” and they show up later in a variety of other ways, often in stanzas that snake or jostle around the page. To what extent are you trying to activate typography and the material page as vectors for translating Latin verse? Is there something these elements can get at in the Latin that other contemporary poetry idioms you see as available to you cannot?

What do we see when we look at the verse of the Aeneid? Latin dactylic hexameter, which I understand the concept of and can “hear,” if I really slow down and sound out carefully; but by and large, while I’m aware of Virgil’s smooth lines, I’m not reading for poetic rhythm in that way. What I perceive is a poet using everything at his disposal—the juxtaposition and suspension of verbs made possible by inflected endings, the fluid syntax, the language, the piling up of description and metaphor—to manipulate rhythm and pace in a larger sense; that is, to guide the reader through a complex sequence of images, speech, and story not unlike an expert filmmaker would today. So I want to use everything at my disposal. I can’t write in Latin hexameter, and English is unsuited for Roman-style versification in many other ways, but I do have recourse to all these tools from contemporary poetry and writing (not to mention the wonderful images provided by my collaborator, Carrie Kaser). As you mention, typography is one of them. It’s fun to imagine Aeneas texting out the whole story of the fall of Troy, using all-caps for the repeated admonition to “RUN!” to underscore the urgency; I would use emojis if I could, and I expect someone eventually will. Other tools include negative space on the page, line breaks, a collage-type style . . . These constitute a poetic language in themselves, which we understand from a century’s worth of modern and postmodern long-form verse in English, Pound and H.D. and Christopher Logue, and more recently Anne Carson and Thomas Meyer. They’re part of my particular language, anyway; they make sense to me, and in some ways the epic form invites me to try as many different approaches as possible, letting the narrative hold it all together. In terms of specific things I’ve tried: Jack Spicer’s poem “Psychoanalysis: An Elegy” inspired the “dialogue” between “V.” and “D.” towards the end of book IV, when Dido is contemplating suicide. Reading Kevin Varrone’s great baseball poem Box Score: An Autobiography led me to try concentrated blocks of prose in justified type in later books. And of course, the opening of Thomas Meyer’s Beowulf—“HEY now hear”—and his frequent use of all-caps for emphasis cued me to the potential for doing this as well. Really it’s about taking permission and then just experimenting with whatever works in a given moment, whatever keeps things moving.

I’m really glad you brought up Varrone’s baseball poem, because I want to ask you about sports. You have penned a little chapbook of sports poems, which you titled “Sports,” and you are also a big fan of a number of different sports and a pretty avid runner. The poet Jack Spicer (whose work I think of as essential to the development of your own work) was famously obsessed with baseball; he worked serious baseball statistics as well as dark baseball jokes into his poems and also developed an elaborate baseball metaphor to explain his theories of composition. Could you address how any of this might have informed your “sportscaster” style treatment of some of the athletic funeral games for Anchises? Sports metaphors lend themselves well to discussing the difficulties of composing “original” poetry—do you see them applying equally in some way to the experience of translation?

And something else I want to pick up on from above are the actual mechanics of your process in experimenting with “whatever keeps things moving.” You are totally capable of working out a kind of diplomatic prose translation of the sort that one would use for a Latin comprehension exam. And, although some readers might not notice it at first because of your particular use of the page, you do often include lines that come across as pretty diplomatic. Do you start by drafting out your own crib or diplomatic rendering and then work from there, or is there ever a kind of single stroke that gets you to something like this scene here, when Aeneas first goes to the underworld (the passage goes a few lines longer than this, but you’ll get the idea, and forgive my approximation of the typesetting):

river         seething with flames             turns on
resounding          rocks huge door             stone
pillars   no human nor    god could move   iron
tower       Fury         girdled    in   gory        robe
keeps watch    groan and roar of   cruel   lashes
creaking      of iron     clanking              shackles

Let me take the second part of this first and work my way back. My process is that I copy out the Latin by hand, fifteen to twenty lines at a time, and then I do a line-by-line rough translation, “diplomatic” as you say. When one book is finished I go back and start working on putting it into poetry. So there’s a moment of glancing at both the Latin and word-for-word English and thinking about what kind of rhythm or pattern I see, just getting a feel for the density of the images and action, which can pile up pretty high in Latin of course, and Virgil does such a wonderful job “suspending” and “bracketing” action, images, and scenes, taking advantage of the syntax and inflected endings. That’s an example of something that’s not as easily done in English. So—in the passage you mention—it seemed that a dense prose-type block of language was one way of reflecting the breathlessness, the sensory overload of that moment, which is Aeneas turning back and witnessing the deeper recesses of hell.

The first part of the question about Jack Spicer and baseball leads me, unexpectedly, towards Nabokov’s ideas about translation. Nabokov would hate my Virgil and probably Meyer’s Beowulf and many of the other translation-adaptations that tend to take liberties with the source text, too. In his description of translating Pushkin, he analyzes the rhyme and meter and carefully determines what would be permissible to do or not do in English; he rejects polysyllabic rhyme, for example, since, “if in Russian and French, the feminine rhyme is a glamorous lady friend, her English counterpart is either an old maid or a drunken hussy from Limerick,” meaning in English polysyllabic rhyme is only used for bawdy or comic effect. He points out that Russian poets of the period were influenced by English poets, but filtered through French; thus, the translator, “while seeking an idiom in the Gallic diction of Pope and Byron, or in the romantic vocabulary of Keats, must constantly refer to the French poets.” And so on. What becomes clear is that Nabokov wants translators to be all that the original poet was, and more. He wants translators to be fluent in the source language and idiom, the cultural references and other poets in other languages that influenced the verse, and wants them to know how to render all that as accurately as possible in the target language . . . In other words, he wants them to be Nabokov. Translator as a kind of super-philologist-poet-robot-scientist, who “reproduce[s] with absolute exactitude, the whole text and nothing but the text.” Admittedly, he writes, “shorn of its primary verbal existence, the original text will not be able to soar and to sing; but it can be very nicely dissected and mounted, and scientifically studied in all its organic details.” Obviously, then, the best one can hope to accomplish is a kind of bizarre taxidermy operation, and disturbingly, the “original text” is figured as a “dead specimen” that one studies under glass. Despite the imposing rigor of Nabokov’s approach, that seems monstrous to me (and not in a good way).

I feel the poetry I’m working on is alive; Virgil’s alive in the poem. I want to treat it like it’s a living thing and be in conversation with it, and with lots of other poems too, all the poems it has touched and influenced and which have touched and influenced me.

Part of what I would like to gesture towards is the ease with which Virgil might turn, for example, to the language of mythology, and the shared fluency of his readers in experiencing that—this would be impossible to do if you subscribed to Nabokov’s forensic approach to translation, since his process necessarily involves a conscious act of backtracking, pinning down, measuring, rendering “the whole text and nothing but the text.” I would argue it’s in the spirit of a more easeful—I hesitate to say “natural”— relationship to language and the calling upon of shared cultural references that Spicer turns to baseball (and also to pop music and movies) in his poetry. Which is not to say that it’s “easy,” or that it makes the poetry easy.

This is a roundabout way of getting at Spicer’s idea of the “Martians” using whatever furniture’s in the room (the poet’s mind) to make the poetry out of, and while that furniture might be obscure—including other languages, texts from the deep recesses of literary history, and so on—it’s got to include everything, and a big part of that is the flotsam and jetsam of the immediate culture. That’s what the “real” has to latch onto and emerge into language. The path to that language has to be quick, almost automatic, never deliberate or calculated. Thus, for me, it is the language of sports, which is rich with its own history and metaphors and expressions. In book V, especially—the “Funeral Games”—the sportscaster-style of recounting the action not only seems appropriate, but also hopefully approximates the cultural surround that a Roman would have experienced, reading or hearing it.

Then, to hark back to your earlier question about “canonicity,” what sports offer imaginatively to Spicer, perhaps, is a sense of other poets from throughout literary history all playing on the same field (or diamond), which is poetry. You grab the ball and toss it to Keats, the shortstop; he relays it to Spenser at second base, then over to Milton at first (though Milton would make a terrible first baseman). In that figuring, it’s a man’s game, which I don’t want for myself—I want Emily Dickinson in center field, maybe H.D. at third—but I do want the sense of working and playing with other living entities, not this archeological dig as envisioned by Nabokov.

You first published your translation of books I-VI in three beautiful chapbook editions from Little Red Leaves, and now we are left hanging halfway through the poem with this edition from Shearsman. Oddly, it has been very nice to get to read Virgil . . . in serial. I mean, both in the sense of a serialized narrative, such that it’s like Virgil is coming out again for the very first time and we readers have to wait for the next installment like the next season of whatever TV show, and in the sense of the Serial Poem developed especially by Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. How much is this seriality merely a function of the exigencies of working and publishing? Does the concept of seriality help you in some way to conceive of the task of translation, or of translating a piece of such “magnitude,” to go back to that word again?

I have to go back to the way the project started, more or less as Latin homework, which then became an experiment in working those raw translations into actual poetry. Then I began sharing the verse translations at readings and sending them around to friends, and eventually I had enough of books I and II to start to think about a chapbook. In the meantime I asked Carrie Kaser if she’d like to make some drawings to go along with the poetry. The idea was twofold: I’d been a big fan of illustrated editions of Dante, especially Sandow Birk’s, which updated Gustave Dore to depict hell as Los Angeles, purgatory as San Francisco, and heaven as Seattle if memory serves; and, knowing I would be omitting certain scenes from the text—this was especially true in books I and II, less so in later books—I hoped the images could carry some of the narrative weight and/or punctuate the story. Dawn Pendergast (editor of Little Red Leaves’s Textile Series) and I were both happy with the way the chapbook version of books I and II came out, and so it seemed natural to suggest publishing books III and IV in the same format. By that point it became obvious that this could be a full-length book, but the enormous task of translating some 10,000 lines of Latin verse and rendering them into poetry—while simultaneously working on a Ph.D. on an entirely different topic and time period—seemed utterly unimaginable. So I pitched it to Tony Frazer at Shearsman Books as an edition of books I-VI (or the first half of Aeneid), and he agreed. I think this worked well for both Carrie Kaser and me. There were long fallow periods as both of us completed our studies at SUNY Buffalo (her in the M.F.A. program) around swapping verses and images. By the time we were done and the finished books arrived from Shearsman I was about to move to Kuwait and Carrie had moved to New Mexico, married, and had a child . . . So certainly, the seriality of the project helped us take it in bite-sized chunks rather than conceive of the whole vast thing.

In terms of the serial poem in a Jack Spicer sense, in some ways my work on Aeneid couldn’t be further from that. Once I had the opportunity to ask Nathaniel Mackey, who has long-term serial projects going in both prose and poetry (From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate and Song of the Andoumboulou, respectively), what he thought about Spicer’s rather extreme ideas about “dictation” and the serial poem, and among other things Mackey said, well, Spicer was an alcoholic. And it’s true: we’re left with this terribly romantic idea of Spicer getting blind drunk at some bar in North Beach, staggering back to his apartment, and waking from a blackout with a bunch of new poems in his notebook, which must have come straight from the “Martians” who dictate both form and content. At the time I’d asked Mackey this I was still a card-carrying Spicerian. Since then I’ve come to appreciate the slow burn of a longer, more deliberate and sober approach to the serial poem. Sure, there are frenzies of activity when the raw translation is done and I want to work on the poetry, and I always worry that I’ll have forgotten how to do it, but these days it’s more about finding a balance between work and play.

Your interview with Kent Johnson also goes into a long discussion of different strains of translation, traduction, and “adaptation” in experimental modernism and the New American Poetry, tracing exactly where you fall in those contexts (and I’d recommend our readers take a look at this interview as well), but you also address the way that some reviewers dismissed Thomas Meyer’s experimental Beowulf translation as a mere “adaptation.” Is there a situation or a kind of text for which you think it is useful to draw a line between translation and adaption? Do you see your work as a translator informing your “original” poetry in ways that render it more translative or adaptation-esque?

I think a useful definition of “adaptation” is taking a poem or story and putting it into a whole new narrative context, in a different time and place. That’s how I would define Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales, which is called a “21st-Century remix of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales” on the back cover and transplants the tale-telling scene such that we get a modern, diverse, down-and-out version of the pilgrims, speaking in an East-London idiomatic dialect of English; I also came across Kim Zarins’s Sometimes We Tell the Truth, a “contemporary retelling” of The Canterbury Tales in novel form, which imagines the pilgrims as teenagers on a school trip to Washington, D.C. and the Host as their harried teacher . . . I was reading Zarins’s version of “The General Prologue,” thinking “Where are the ‘shoures soote,’ where’s the ‘ferne halwes couthe in sondry londes’?” They’re not in there. I’m sure there are people encountering my Aeneid thinking “Where’s ‘arma virumque cano’?” because I don’t include that. So I wonder if, from a reception standpoint, the reader or critic is expecting to see the “greatest hits” from the source text and how the new version handles them, and the more you diverge from those expectations the less it feels like translation? But that doesn’t make it an “adaptation;” I think the definition I offer above is a more useful one. And while I think the distinction is useful up to a point, I’m more fascinated by the differing values assigned to the terms, as you say. A translation, while less than wholly original, can at least be “rigorous,” while an adaptation can be more original but is also “derivative” and ultimately lesser. As we know, medieval authors—who would scarcely have thought to call themselves “authors”—would have felt almost wholly the opposite. In other words, they would have wanted to be derivative, to graft their modest scribblings as much as possible onto a larger, sturdier body of work. Speaking of Chaucer again, it’s probably no accident that some of the poems that required the most original storytelling on his part—House of Fame, “The Cook’s Tale,” etc.—are incomplete, veering towards silence and failure. So I’m always looking for ways to erode the barriers between translation and adaptation—as well as, for that matter, originality and derivation—in the service of what fires the imagination, what feels fun to do.

I think it took me a long time, in turning back to my “own” poetry, to quit saying to myself, “OK, it’s time to take the training wheels off and do some ‘real’ work, something that’s not translated from or based on something else.” Now I don’t care. I don’t really write “original” poetry anymore. I embrace being derivative, gaining literary sustenance from other, older works. I feel we’ve all been tricked into believing we had to be Rilke, to live and write on the “frontiers of consciousness” in order to achieve Poetry with a capital “P.” It’s not true. Sometimes it’s more important to know how to tie a good, sturdy knot than to wrestle with an angel.

Click here to read a review of David Hadbawnik's translation of the Aeneid.