An Interview with Jennifer Scappettone

Alexis Almeida

Photograph by Dino Ignani

Jennifer Scappettone is a poet, scholar, and translator, but her work with language far exceeds those categorizations, and her efforts to diminish the gaps between them far outweighs the privileging of one. In the preface to the 125-page dossier she edited for Aufgabe 7, which featured a sampling of contemporary Italian “poetry of research,” she writes: “Opposing poles are shown to dwell in an exchange, a cross-questing, cross-mirroring. The word category itself hails, etymologically, back to against + assembly/place of public speaking: the category anchors itself versus the definitions of consensus.” Jennifer’s work has created an ethics along the fraught continuum between anchorage and migration, framing the movement through interstitial spaces as a constant mode of inquiry.

Her interest in polylingualism and its politics figures greatly into her translations of Italian poet Amelia Rosselli, compiled in the collection Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Rosselli was a postwar modernist whose father was an influential member of the European anti-Fascist Resistance. Following his assassination, she was raised in exile in France, England, and the United States, writing somewhere between French, English, and Italian. In her preface to the collection, Jennifer is careful to avoid the romanticization of exile, focusing instead on Rosselli’s “distressed origins” and her choice to write in Italian as an act of resistance, a means of dismantling the nationalistic biases of the language. She has also been an advocate of other Italian authors, curating the aforementioned dossier and founding PennSound Italiana, a new sector of the University of Pennsylvania’s audiovisual archive dedicated to experimental Italian poetry.

Jennifer’s own poetic output is especially remarkable for its genre-defying qualities, its ambitiousness, and its connectivity to her work as a translator and a scholar. Her first book of poetry, From Dame Quickly (Litmus Press, 2009), is, among other things, a richly textured response to 9/11 and its sociopolitical aftermath. It features translation, collage, prose poetry, experiments with spatial constraints (imagined as “lasting implications of [Rosselli’s] ‘cube’ or at times ‘tube-form’”), and as she states in this interview, “[citations] of mongrel languages (including the aged, eroded, and what well-intentioned but oblivious purists would call the bastardized Italian of my household).” She also contributed fascinating meditations on geography and social landscape to Belladonna Elders Series #5, which she edited, and her commitment to site-specific work has shown through countless cross-media collaborations, installations, and performances.

She has taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Wesleyan University, the University of Virginia Young Writers’ Workshop, and the Naropa University Summer Writing Program, and is currently associate professor of English, creative writing, and Romance languages and literatures, and faculty affiliate of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Chicago. Her research spans the nineteenth through twenty-first centuries and focuses on comparative global modernism, relations between literary arts and other arts, and much else. As is reflected in this interview, she continues to contribute to public conversations about aesthetics, including translation and its presence, well beyond the academy.
–Alexis Almeida

I’d like to start with your translations of Amelia Rosselli. Rosselli’s work is tirelessly committed to engaging the social. The “I” in her poems seems to approximate larger ideas of the public, and having borne witness to so much—living as a political exile in France, England, and the United States, and being so affected by fascism and Italian communism. I’m wondering to what extent translation can act as witness to these socio-historical forces? Did you see this as a possibility while translating her over so many years?

Translation necessarily contributes to the dissemination of the harrowing sociopolitical experience registered in Amelia Rosselli’s poetry; in translation, the io of Rosselli’s poems composed in Italian has the potential to become even larger than it already is. I’m imagining that in using the word “public” you are referring to that astonishing quote of hers that I placed on the back cover of Locomotrix, in which she speaks of her attempt “to eliminate both the you and the I, this binarism, this little intimist alibi,” which is so present in the tradition of lyric poetry, so as “to ensure that the poem has the objectivity of a Pasternak in poetry, where the I is the public, where the I is things, where the I is the things that happen.” Translation that doesn’t recognize and work to register this impulse of hers but instead understands and spectacularizes her verse as the expression of personal traumas also threatens to domesticate her poetry, and I mean that quite literally: to shut it up in rooms. Rosselli’s work stands out for the fact that it seems to have been wrought, as Pier Paolo Pasolini put it, in “un laboratorio pubblico” (a public laboratory). I worked hard to understand the context out of and toward which she was writing, though her poetics led me to an understanding of the postwar period that I would never have been able to glean from history books: from the inside out.

Rosselli’s trilingual writing practice is a major feature of her work. Can you tell us a bit about this choice? To what extent does it reflect her experience of rendering, or struggling to render, linguistic and cultural displacement, of perhaps not being able to claim a “mother tongue,” and to what extent is it an attempt to challenge the idea of Italy as “fatherland,” to claim its hybrid features, its “transnational cultural formation,” as you write in your introduction to Locomotrix?

It’s important to understand that rather than composing multilingual texts, Rosselli chose chiefly to write in one language at a time. The exception is her Diary in Three Tongues, an experiment that occupies a liminal space between research and composition, and which she chose to include in Primi scritti/First Writings as context for the early (early 1950s–early 1960s) French, English, and Italian poems that she published alongside one another in that 1980 volume. This choice to write in one language at a time interests me because it stands as a rejection of the polylingual collage aesthetic of Pound’s Cantos and Eliot’s Waste Land, major influences on the often ludic experiments of the neo-avant-garde. Instead we need to consider Rosselli’s occupation of each language of composition as “minor,” in the sense developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. I mean “occupied” fairly literally: Rosselli’s Italian is inflected by the other languages in which she was reading, listening, and thinking; the same goes for her English and her French. This crossing and abrading of linguistic rule presents a range of daunting but provocative challenges to the translator.

To answer your second question, I view Rosselli as having chosen to write mainly in Italian as an aspirational gesture of sociopolitical belonging. This aspect of her writing gets lost somehow in much of the current discourse because readers today are attracted to the notion of the exile as a romantic stance. That Rosselli is still routinely cast as “other” to Italy because of her supposedly French or English accent—and above all for her irreverent manipulations of the Italian language—reveals a blockage in the ideological underpinnings of the notion of “Italianness” which is really quite retrograde, considering the waves of emigration that have led Italians abroad in search of work from the late nineteenth century into the present moment, and the waves of emigration that have led so many African, Asian, Roma, Eastern and Southeastern European people to the Italian peninsula more recently. Rosselli’s poetry obliges us to redefine patriarchal, nationalist, xenophobic notions of the fatherland that secured a foothold during Fascism, whether she explicitly intended to challenge them or not. It manifests the transnational tensions embedded in the Italian language and their lasting agency in spite of the nation-state’s violent consolidation.

How do you interpret Rosselli’s choice to distance herself from confessional poetic modes, especially in feminist terms? There seems to be a clear will to undercut the popular conventions of her time, but was there also an attempt to create new spaces for female writers, especially within discourses beyond the autobiographical?

Rosselli maintains in the same 1992 interview with Gabriella Caramore and her translator into English, Emmanuela Tandello, that the feminist movement is more anchored historically and more advanced in the Anglo-American tradition (another indication of her upbringing and literary-political experience between France, the United States, England, and Italy). This led her to an aggressive “war/love with man” staged through the verse of Sleep, her collection of English-language poetry, written between the 1950s and 1960s but only published in 1992 (and tellingly, in Milan, as it seems that only John Ashbery and a few others in the English-speaking world really grasped what she was up to in that work). She implicitly critiques the simplistic translation of écriture féminine into poetry by asserting that she attempted to insert the male body, dematerialized in centuries of love poetry written by men, into her work as well as the female body that was being emphasized at the time. Rosselli had little patience for the narcissism of confessional “feminist” poetry, despite her interest in Lowell and Plath; her worldview was too expansive for any species of navel-gazing. She was a member of the Communist Party, even after it became unfashionable, and was much more interested in “documenting” broader movements, even if such documentation was often conducted from the riven inside out. She stands as a rare example in her time (and even in the current moment) of the possibility for women to write iconoclastic, anti-identitarian political poetry. The tendency to treat her poetry as straightforward biography and to harp on her reputed semblance to Plath constitutes an infuriating extension of historical amnesia, geographical provincialism, and sexism in literary criticism and translation.

Yes, and her practice of “transgendering” words in Italian, or feminizing words that would otherwise be masculine, seems to follow this impulse to dismantle traditional/nationalistic notions of Italian(ness), as well as traditional notions of gender. How were you able to register this as a translator?

Since modern English doesn’t have grammatical gender, the effect of feminizing or masculinizing a noun, particularly one that we regard as neuter, can resound very strongly in translation—and can exaggerate the impact of changing the gender of a word in a Romance language like Italian, where sometimes nouns migrate from one gender to the other over the centuries, or between one regional dialect and another. At the same time, dampening Rosselli’s strategic use or misuse of grammatical gender through more expected neutral language in translation would be its own kind of heresy, erasing an aspect of her linguistic and political innovation. The question thus remains perpetually open as to whether to register these more or less subtle experiments in sometimes awkward feminized English; one strategically placed inversion in a poem that plays with gender can be enough to impart an overall effect. To offer an example, in the early poem “Il Cristo trainava (sotto della sua ombrella) (la sua croce) un” (translated as “Christ hauled (below his parasol) (his cross) a”), which imagines thwarted colloquy with a Byzantine Christ, Rosselli deploys archaic words, such as trainare (to drag, as of a dress’s train) and either archaic or mis- or transgendered words, such as chiostra (a 14th-century word for ring or enclosure, which is now considered literary for chiostro, or “cloister”) and ombrella (regional dialect, or perhaps an Anglicization, of the standard Italian ombrello, or a botanical term for an umbrella-shaped species of flowering).

Il Cristo trainava (sotto della sua ombrella) (la sua croce) un
informe materiale; parole trainanti nella polvere del dipinto
del chiostro di vetro. Sotto alla sua chiostra di vetro
il Cristo trainava una sciabola . . . .

Because the archaic timbre of the verb trainare was so difficult to render in English while still relaying the action of dragging, I chose to translate chiostra using the archaic English word for cloister, clauster, literally changing the o of “cloister” to an a, and retaining the sonic patterning so important in Rosselli’s Variazioni (and tough to reproduce in English) through assonance with “haul.”

Christ hauled (below his parasol) (his cross) a
shapeless material; words being hauled through the dust of the
painting of the glass cloister. Below his glass clauster
Christ hauled a sabre . . . .

Because Rosselli deploys religious tropes throughout this collection to elaborate the battle-love with man that I spoke of before, I also made the perhaps controversial decision to translate maestra (which qualifies the feminine noun for cruelty, crudeltà) as “mastress” instead of using the more obvious and (supposedly) neuter term “master.”

. . . La crudeltà si taceva forse meno maestra
del mondo, o universo con la sottana troppo piccola, se lui
piangeva . . . .

. . . Cruelty kept silent, perhaps less mastress
of the world, or universe with too-tight petticoat, if he
cried . . . .

I thrashed inwardly over these microdecisions at length, and decided in the end to go for the more audacious solution. Other experiments with prepositions in the poem were almost impossible to render without making the texture rhythmically clunky, so I opted to concentrate on gender here. While neuter in English, cruelty is feminine in Italian, and without this understanding at play there would be no other means of supporting Rosselli’s otherwise jarring attribution of a petticoat to cruelty’s universe. I am aware that many would disagree with such a choice, but I believe that in the end my translations are the more “Rossellian” for such decisions—which are also reflected in the title of my collection, Locomotrix. I borrowed this word from Rosselli’s locomotrice, a feminization of the term locomotivo, or locomotive, which bespeaks the motility of place, or dislocation, at the heart of Rosselli’s poetic, as well as her capacity as a woman lyricist with experience beyond borders to cast objects in an audacious light. I am honored that poets and critics in the Italian experimental poetry community read the book so carefully, and that in her review of the book, Giulia Niccolai, who is both Italian and American, upheld what she called my audacia (daring, audaciousness, courage) as a translator.

How did you originally come to Rosselli? Did you find, and do you continue to find crossover in your aesthetics? I’m thinking specifically of From Dame Quickly, your first book of poetry, which was written in the aftermath of 9/11 (and during the Second Gulf War) and is very much invested in responding to sociopolitical conditions, to queering language, to creating visual and aural experiences, etc.

I am grateful to the scholar Barbara Spackman for introducing me to Rosselli in the year 2000, when I was undertaking a translation seminar with Anne Carson. Rosselli’s work influenced my poetics far more than I could ever have predicted at that time. I continue in my “own” writing to work through the lasting implications of what Rosselli imagined as a “cube” or at times a “tube-form” (composing in the delimited textual spaces/shapes of the column and the square throughout From Dame Quickly); the clashing of sexes, historical traces, and nation-states made disparate through forging or citation of mongrel languages (including the aged, eroded, and what well-intentioned but oblivious purists would call the bastardized, Italian of my household); and the standoff between beauty and violence at work in a title such as Variazioni belliche (Bellicose Variations, which most strictly rendered would translate as Bellic Variations). After 9/11, in continuing to study and translate and, step-by-step, to comprehend the poetics of Rosselli, I found myself given permission to dispute the “securitization” of American English through the battle tactics she had waged, most of which were still unauthorized in the literary traditions of any of her languages decades later. These battles continue to abound.

I’m also thinking of your preface to the Belladonna Elders Series #5 that you edited and co-authored with Etel Adnan and Lyn Hejinian, in which you write: “The very gesture of setting a swath of geography apart from oneself for contemplation, or preservation—(from the Latin contra, “against,” as Raymond Williams recalls [in The Country and the City])—is an act of language.” You are each responding in some way to the notion of landscape, but can you talk about how this idea has figured into your work, especially your performance work that engages with ecologies and their decline?

Lyn Hejinian introduced me to Gertrude Stein’s geographies and plays through the brilliant essays collected in The Language of Inquiry as well as through her exploratory, non-hieratic teaching, and her writing, which draws on landscape as horizontal structure, exposed me to compositional techniques that resist the linear progression of time associated with the sentence and with narrative writ large. As someone agitated by the ambient pressure to specialize and “become” either a visual artist or a writer, I have also found Etel Adnan’s work with apparently languageless landscape and meaning across asemantic, gestural, painterly, and multilingual realms precious. Through immersion in these domains and others, most of which I wasn’t assigned in skool, I have come to think of poetic composition as the generation of a score, even an ecology, open to “translation” by those who encounter it. I think one difference between my work, perhaps generalizable as my generation’s, and those that came before it resides in a return to literalness, perhaps due to the virtual turn in reading and sociality, and the seeming dematerialization of the artwork. Site-specific work, as Miwon Kwon noted years ago, seems to arise as a corrective or supplement to globalization. While the writers that meant and mean most to me theorized the materiality of the text, I’ve felt it necessary to ground both political and philosophical concerns in actual bodies, trash, terrains. The generations immediately before mine were often suspicious of both theatricality and anything resembling concrete poetry. But with the tools we have today it’s irresistible to work with words outside of type, which press against language barriers; and as dialogue becomes digital, it’s increasingly salvific to animate language beyond the page, releasing it into the community for rechurning. We have so much work to do.

Can you speak to the experiences you’ve had translating authors with whom your politics do not align? Why is this also important work?

“Translation, the sweetest form of masochism, can also steward the sweetest reinforcement of schism.” I wrote this as the first sentence of a talk devoted to translating F. T. Marinetti, whose work I have been drawn to for its initial revolutionary aspirations and lasting impact on both art and daily life. I found myself translating Marinetti in part because so much of his writing remains unavailable in English, and in part because I found its failure to comply with its own rejections illuminating. Rosselli writes in a lyric of Serie ospedaliera (Hospital or Hospitaler Series),

. . . notte
di nuovo le caramelle una lavagna io
ti scorro nelle tue dita misogene . . . .

. . . night
again the candies a blackboard I
course through your misogynous fingers . . . .

I have always interpreted this series of image-flashes as an affirmation of the poet’s power to occupy the grabbing, inscribing, fingers of seduction and instruction. Translation of a nemesis, a fascist or misogynist, is profoundly different from criticism of such a figure—especially criticism of the Anglo-Saxon order, with its trope of analytical distance. Translation obliges that you be embedded, digging your way out of the enemy logic word by word. This can be suffocating or it can allow you to burst the prevailing ideology of the source text from within.

I want to shift gears now and talk about the idea of experimental translation, how it is treated in literary communities, universities, and beyond. I’m thinking about the importance of the cultural, historical, political contextualization of the work in its original language—how this can be an important way of resisting our English-centric culture and communicating otherwise invisible realities—and also the ways that de-contextualization can open the work up to new, vital readings, or that contexts can exist in a transnational sense. You have been critical of certain appropriative practices as they have become fused with the idea of experimental translation, so I’m wondering what practices you consider to be useful, even transgressive, and what practices less so. One association I have with experimental translation, or at least one usage I think is important as a translator, is the dismantling of “master” texts, or canonical texts, some of which we are publishing in this issue of Asymptote. Are there times when you’ve seen this done successfully, or other projects that excite you at the moment?

The United States sustains a problematic tradition of English-only Americanism (to use a term from Joshua L. Miller’s Accented America) that continues to generate inequities for non-native speakers and immigrants who hail from other linguistic backgrounds. It’s easy to lose hope in a more capacious linguistic future when US poets and editors (who could be at the vanguard of promoting the literature of other traditions) use the term translation as shorthand for any procedural work upon a text, regardless of linguistic competence, re-erasing the labor of translators and at worst, implicitly absolving themselves of the need to engage the source text’s language and/or cultural context in depth. This tendency was on the upswing during the longish conceptualist moment, which now finds itself curtailed by a grave ethical/political crisis.

Why be so punctilious? For one thing, redubbing appropriation and procedural work as translation can easily reinforce the canon of so-called global literature rather than expanding it: those who haven’t explored the language and literature of interest much tend to work with the same canonical figures engaged over and over, since they are taking the translated record at its word. (Admittedly, there is a similar problem with mainstream translation, since most US presses are afraid of publishing writers in translation who are not yet widely considered canonical.) The language I have worked with most, Italian, tends to see only a handful of authors translated into English in any given year; even prominent writers across the disciplines like Luigi Nono in music, Manfredo Tafuri in architecture and political theory, Pier Paolo Pasolini in literary and cultural criticism, Carla Lonzi in aesthetic and political theory are translated from Italian badly or only in part, in favor of yet more Dante and Montale.

I also think it’s become too easy to crown oneself experimental or transgressive through formal tinkering with a source text. Identifiable formal procedures imposed upon a foreign text are more readily marketable, digestible, and teachable here than those that require the protracted colloquy between two or more languages involved in translation, including the career-long colloquy that takes fragments of Stesichorus and transforms them into the two-volume story of a North American monster/boy.

This is not to dismiss experimental translation by any means, but to say that I believe US writers and educators should make space for stretching oneself to accountability with what is foreign, the straits of mutuality, and thinking in dilated time signatures. It’s easy to overlook the myriad invisible decisions reflected in any given translation in the workaday sense in a US literary culture that seems increasingly to consist in the circulation of author-apparitions and drop-quotes.

An example of an experimental translation project I’ve been following with great interest, and which I haven’t mentioned elsewhere, is Jonathan Stalling’s Yíngelìshi. I also want to mention the exemplary multifoliate bodies of work of Erin Mouré, Caroline Bergvall, Gail Scott, and Nathanaël, for example, where translation cannot be siphoned off from creation. One favorite example of dismantling a master text is Jackson Mac Low’s Words nd Ends from Ez—the first publication, however ravaged, of Pound’s very explicitly fascist Italian Cantos in the United States, and hence a “translation” in the etymological sense. Pound’s Cathay and Fenollosa’s writings on the Chinese written character, which decontextualized Chinese poetics in problematic ways, were nevertheless among the texts that prodded me to become a writer and wanderer and translator, and their resonance resulted in English-language modernism as we know it.

To what extent do academic programs and their systems of categorization limit the reading of works in translation? What are some ways academics can dismantle the implicit nationalism of a lot of the current discussions there, or pull marginalized voices and unconventional writing practices into them? This makes me think of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s notion of the “undercommons,” an imagined space that gestures “beyond the regulated zones of polite society,” and which Stefano once defined as “a kind of comportment or ongoing experiment with and as the general antagonism,” and I wonder if literary translation, as a practice, can achieve a similar kind of subversion, always existing beyond the grasp of institutional formation and its hierarchies.

Academic programs still dependent on national languages and literatures obviously reinforce schisms between countries in a moment when nation-states have their hackles up, and their fences. This tends to stop up dialogue and change, making antagonism disappear. On the other hand, presenting “world literature” in school as a monolithic phenomenon without deliberating on the aesthetic and political intervention of translation, as still happens routinely, is an assimilationist tactic and a missed opportunity for intercultural resistance. Literary translation can be subversive, but it is more easily published, distributed, and rewarded when it doesn’t admit so much friction between source and target; it often props up the canon, regardless of debates in Comp Lit departments. In order to fill in gaps in the journalistic record of marketable world literature, the academy will have to step up: instructors will need to loosen their grip on the notion of mastery, collaborate with those in other fields/languages, teach less “teachable” texts, veering from those whose point can be derived from a single discussion, and invest time in investigating the tripwires of translation with their students. Translators, meanwhile, will need to promote the work of less celebrated authors (to include more varied aesthetics, more women and people of color), and of immigrant and diasporic authors who are challenging the very understanding of national languages still defended by Academies. They all need support to do so, though, and that’s another discussion, alas—

I’m wondering about the possibility of political and literary activism through translation. Resisting the expectation that translations present a polished product, or one that fits neatly into aesthetic ideologies, or writing that neatly resembles writing here in the US is important, of course, but beyond that, at this particular historical moment, fighting the waxing xenophobia and racism so pervasive in our culture at a variety of levels is also important. Are there people, organizations, presses already doing this kind of work? What else can be done?

I can’t say it enough: look to the publishing and outreach projects of Antena, and strategize supporting interpretation and multilingual action in your community. Check out publishers you might not know, like Action Books, Nightboat, Ugly Duckling, Litmus, and Archipelago who publish a wide range of authors in translation; buy books from university presses that keep their translations in print. Read journals like Mandorla; listen to Cross-Cultural Poetics. Support bookstores that feature non-English writings, like Los Angeles’s Librería Feminista/Cielo Portàtil. Teach ASL poetry and poetics. Learn languages even if you have no hope of mastering them; read LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs if you think you can’t. Resist the pervasive treatment of translation as a nifty special interest that distracts real authors from their own work and has nothing to teach non-translators.

We all need to be supporting the translation of words of refugees now being denied entry into safe circumstances, the translation of those who are our reputed enemies, the translation of non-English-speaking neighbors. I am working on a book about postwar utopianism and the dream of a common language, and though I see the limitations of such a vision, I remain convinced that the humility it takes to listen across linguistic difference is an essential task in the clearing of a commons.