An interview with Katerina Stoykova-Klemer

Steven Wingate

In recent years, there has been a small but encouraging increase in the amount of Bulgarian fiction published in English, due in large part to the work of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation in conjunction with Open Letter Books, a translation-specific press at the University of Rochester that has published four Bulgarian novels since 2011.

This year, Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, a multi-talented editor and poet who writes in both English and Bulgarian, published a new anthology of work by a diverse group of contemporary Bulgarian poets, The Season of Delicate Hunger. Stoykova-Klemer translated and published the book with the press she launched in 2010, Accents Publishing, dedicated to original poetry in English and works in translation.

Stoykova-Klemer grew up on the Black Sea in Bourgas, Bulgaria, "the city of poets." She immigrated to the United States in 1995, worked for many years as a software engineer, and earned an MFA in 2009 from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Her first book of poetry was a bilingual edition, The Air Around the Butterfly (Въздухът около пеперудата) (Fakel Express, 2009). It won the 2010 Pencho's Oak award, which recognizes literary contributions to contemporary Bulgarian culture.

I corresponded with her via email recently about the current state of Bulgarian poetry in translation and her experience launching a small press. Our discussion touched on the "branding" of Bulgarian literature, pre- and post-Wall poets, her thoughts on the translation process, and her work across mediums—which includes hosting a radio show and acting in a feature-length film, "Proud Citizen," about a Bulgarian playwright who travels to Kentucky for the premiere of one of her plays.

—Steven Wingate

How did the idea for a new anthology of Bulgarian poetry come about?

In 2009 one of my MFA poetry mentors asked me, "What is Bulgarian poetry like?" To illustrate, I bought two anthologies available at the time and gave them to her as a gift. Both books had wonderful selections and translations, but they featured many of the same authors, mostly men.

I wanted to offer the world my own answer to the question, "What is Bulgarian poetry like?" and present a cross-section of contemporary Bulgarian poetry—a snapshot of what is being written right now. I also wanted to include more women, as well as writers at different ages and career stages. I decided to include only living authors, because I was and still am hoping that this anthology may open other doors and lead to further opportunities for them. Last but not least, I selfishly wanted to immerse myself in Bulgarian poetry through reading and translating.

What was it like preparing for a project of this size? It seems like a fairly massive undertaking.

It took a long time and the completion of a number of projects before I felt ready to undertake this emotional and time-consuming effort. The first book of poetry I wrote was the bilingual The Air Around the Butterfly. Because each poem appeared side-by-side with its translation, I chose only those poems that worked reasonably well in both languages.

For my second collection I wanted to again present my work in both languages, but decided to instead publish two separate books—one in English, The Porcupine of Mind, and one in Bulgarian, Indivisible Number. That way, I could choose the poems that worked best in their respective languages. About 80 percent of the poems are common to both books, but there are some that appear in one and not the other.

This process taught me several important lessons. First, translation does not have to be a compromise. Second, not all poems carry over well from one language to another, and third, there are many that do, and it is those I should focus on.

What kind of goals did you have in mind while developing this new anthology of contemporary Bulgarian poems?

It was important to me for the poems to be relevant and enjoyable for American readers. By this time, I had already edited about thirty books through Accents, which gave me more confidence in my own abilities as an editor, as well as insight into the tastes of the American reader. My biggest project before this anthology was Bigger Than They Appear: Anthology of Very Short Poems. I read probably five to six thousand submitted poems to arrive at the 250 we included in the anthology. It immediately turned into our best-selling book. That gave me experience selecting, editing, publishing, and marketing an anthology. After that, I felt ready to proceed with this one.

I see that you've translated twenty-nine of the thirty-two poets in the anthology. (Ivan Hristov's poems were translated by Angela Rodel, Zoya Marincheva translated Kerana Angelova, and Dimiter Kenarov translated his own work.) What was it like translating such a wide range of poets?

To a large extent, the format of The Season of Delicate Hunger is inspired by Charles Simić's The Horse Has Six Legs, an anthology of Serbian poetry, for which he was the only translator. I found myself referring to his book for ideas and confirmation of my own choices.

The process for translating was practically the same for each of the poets. By the time I finished reading the original poem, often I could already imagine the translation, and I would immediately write down the first draft. I had several native speakers read the translations and provide comments at various stages.

I deliberately translated more poems than I needed—ten to twenty poems for each of the authors—and then asked the native speakers to rank the translations by how much each poem appealed to them personally. I took this feedback into consideration later, when deciding which translations to keep and which to let go of. Putting the final book together was very similar to arranging a multi-part poetry manuscript—the various sections had not only to be complete by themselves, but also to complement rather than repeat each other, as well as to flow from one section to the next.

I'm so glad you say that the book contains "such varied poets." That was in large part my goal—to include authors with both distinct and diverse voices.

Which poetic voices in particular did you find the most distinct—both as a reader and in your working relationship to them as a translator?

To me, the voices in the book sound distinct and serve to show us the world through the lenses of different consciousnesses. For instance, I see several of the poets asserting themselves in certain roles as poets: Ivan Hristov—the wide-eyed and wise explorer; Aksinya Mihaylova—the voice of the Goddess Hera; Olya Stoyanova—the herald of the heartbreaking and loving simplicity of everyday life. Petja Heinrich—one of the bravest and least self-conscious poetic voices I know.

You talk quite frankly in your introduction to the anthology about the pressure you felt to only include work by poets you could do justice to as a translator. Can you say more about that and perhaps offer an example?

Certainly. I really wanted to include poet Georgi Borissov. His work is very musical, often divided into closed quatrains, has long sentences with inverted sentence structure and end rhymes. I've worked on and off with his poetry in the past, and even though I've had a few of the translations published, I feel that I've never been able to quite do it justice in English. I did actually spend weeks working on his poems, but every time I looked at my translations, I felt as if they were still rough drafts.

I definitely would have had to compromise. For example, if I wanted to keep the end rhymes, I wouldn't have been able to maintain the precision of metaphor that he is known for, and certainly not the rhythm. More experienced translators, such as John Balaban and Roland Flint, have been able to successfully carry forward the beauty and substance in Borissov's work. I hope that after a few more years of translating, I too might be able to do a good job.

In your editor's note you talk about the poetry you selected appealing to the American reader. Is there a strain in Bulgarian poetry that you feel isn't accessible, or doesn't translate culturally? If so, what is it like?

The focus on the American reader, as opposed to a worldwide English audience, was based on two factors. First, I don't feel that I have a global view of the reading tastes of a worldwide English audience and didn't want to take on such responsibility. Second, a vast majority of the fans and friends of Accents Publishing—the buyers of our books—are American, and this book was created with them in mind.

I don't feel that a reader necessarily needs to understand everything in or about a poem in order to enjoy it. Nonetheless, verse that relies too heavily on clichés or requires particular knowledge of folk songs, national history, or attitudes that are specific to a limited geographical region would be lost on an American reader, since the cultural and emotional distance would be too large to bridge with a mere translation.

The Season of Delicate Hunger is not intended to be a textbook or a scholarly anthology. Rather, its purpose is to delight readers with poetry they can relate to, while at the same time introducing them to something they may never have been exposed to before.

This can be a touchy topic for anyone concerned with international literature. Many see the "world lit" phenomenon, with its concern with accessibility, as a double-edged sword—one that both offers new work to new audiences, but can also be seen to water down literature by "scrubbing" out cultural specifics and identifiers. Do you have a take on that debate, and did you feel that question hovering around your translation work as you put together this anthology?

I feel a balance is needed between the familiar and the foreign. If a translator wants to engage the reader emotionally, then he or she needs to provide a foothold to the reader—some human commonness. At the same time, if in the translation, there is nothing different, surprising, or culturally-colored, then it doesn't enrich and enlarge the reader's world—the reader hasn't traveled to a new place. I don't believe that this issue was a struggle for The Season of Delicate Hunger. We did need a few footnotes, but I didn't feel the need to "scrub" the cultural identifiers from the translations. I think the reader's enjoyment is the only true indicator if this balance between the familiar and the foreign has been achieved.

I imagine that quite a bit has changed in Bulgarian poetry since the end of the Soviet era in 1989. Do you see a difference between "pre-Wall" and "post-Wall" Bulgarian poets? Some younger ones, like Ivan Hristov, felt very international. Was translating them different?

There is a big difference between pre-Wall and post-Wall poets and poetry. A number of authors whose work was married to the communist doctrine vanished overnight, never to be heard from again, probably because their writing had been supported by the government. Other poets, whose work had been banned by the government, started publishing and popularizing their older work. The elimination of censorship, coupled with the discovery of self-publishing, meant that anybody could publish. And—oh, horror!—everybody did. At this point, the literary scene is like any other—the quality of work varies widely.

I believe that post-Wall poets cannot fathom, much less appreciate, the experience and frustration of censorship and scrutiny that pre-Wall poets had endured. I am glad we cannot imagine it fully. When I shared my translation of Georgi Gospodinov's poem, "Time Is a Neutron Bomb," a younger reader said that he hadn't heard the term neutron bomb, and had to look it up. That made me feel hopeful for the world.

About translating pre-Wall and post-Wall poets, though—my ambition in compiling this collection was to present what is being written now by living and active authors, and to the best of my knowledge, all poems included in the anthology were written after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, the vast majority have been written within the last several years.

At least five of the authors ended up being finalists for major national literary awards in 2013, and two of those won. Olya Stoyanova won the Poetic Nikulden Award, and Olya Stoyanova and Yordan Efftimov split the Ivan Nikolov Award for 2013.

In recent years, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation has led the push for more translations of Bulgarian fiction and has consciously been "branding" Bulgarian literature. Do you feel like a part of a movement? And how do you feel the branding of Bulgarian literature is going, so to speak?

I'd be honored to be a part of any movement that includes the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. We're a small press, so we operate on a different scale. However, we may be filling a niche, because up to this point, the foundation has focused on fiction, rather than poetry. I would love for Accents to continue to introduce more Bulgarian poets to American readers, and I hope that this anthology is only the beginning. It was inspiring to go to the AWP conference in 2013 and see the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation table with so many wonderful Bulgarian books in translation. That definitely made me want to publish more Bulgarian books, as well.

To me, it may be too soon to tell how the branding is going, perhaps because I don't have enough knowledge of the direct audience for these books. What I have noticed in general is that people may start reading a foreign work because it seems exotic, but they would finish it because they enjoy it. It would be wonderful to see people read Bulgarian literature because it's good, and not because it's Bulgarian.

You're a poet, editor, radio show host, and publisher, but have also worked as a software engineer and acted in film. How did all that come about? It's quite a diverse set of intellectual talents and creative pursuits.

It's true that I've done vastly different things, but approaching them and entering into them has been more or less the same: I have been scared every time, and every time I've been willing to fail and ready to work.

I love learning. I have degrees in engineering, computer science, an MBA, and an MFA. I feel it's wonderful to specialize in something, but many of us can benefit by developing skills and knowledge in areas we find intimidating. I have used different aspects of my education in various jobs, but my favorite has been my current work at Accents Publishing; I feel I have employed most everything I've ever learned in the activities of creating a press from the ground up, managing a business, working with authors, selecting manuscripts for publication, and working with the wonderful Accents team.

I was fascinated by software engineering. I loved writing software programs, and always told people that writing software is very much like writing poems—you use form, along with certain vocabulary and syntax rules; use of repetition is very important, as is conciseness. Basically—tremendous creativity and beauty can be found behind the user interface.

Every opportunity to be creative in a new way is priceless and teaches us a lot about ourselves and others. I love trying my hand at new things, and I'm often quick to say "yes" to opportunities. Whenever I must make a decision whether to do something or not, I ask myself if I would regret doing it or not doing it. The latter feels almost unbearable to me, while the former can always lead to a life lesson, at the very least. That's how I started a live radio show ["Accents," on WRFL 88.1 FM in Lexington, Kentucky]—because there was an opportunity for me to try my hand at it, to learn a new skill, and at the same time to conduct public conversations about literature, art, and culture with people whose voices needed to be heard.

When Director Thom Southerland approached me about working on a movie together, I agreed with no hesitation. He said, "There is work in front of camera." I said, "That's no problem," even though at the time I wasn't sure exactly what that meant, nor did I realize that I would be the lead in a full-length film. The movie, Proud Citizen, is now finished and is currently being submitted to festivals.

Finally, can you think of any resources out there that might point the reader to more information about Bulgarian poetry? How do you keep up on your home country's poetry from the U.S.?

In October 2012, an anthology was published in the U.K., At the End of the World: Contemporary Poetry from Bulgaria, edited by Tsvetanka Elenkova and translated by Jonathan Dunne. It's excellent on all levels, and I recommend it. There are also other Bulgarian poets currently or formerly living in the U.S., who have published English-language volumes of poetry. Katia Mitova, Lyubomir P. Nikolov, Peycho Kanev, and others. One of the authors of the anthology, Vladimir Levchev, has had two poetry books published in the U.S. Kristin Dimitrova has several English-language poetry books, as well.

I often learn about new poetry books by reading reviews, following Facebook posts, and I engage in personal correspondence with authors, as well. Whenever I visit Bulgaria, I try to buy and to read as much poetry as I can. This is one of my favorite aspects of traveling to Bulgaria.

Since 2002, I try to go to Bulgaria every summer. I spend most of my time in my hometown of Bourgas. It's a beautiful city on the Black Sea, with rich literary traditions—it's known as "the city of poets." Bourgas is home to such beloved Bulgarian poets as Hristo Fotev, Petya Dubarova, Yanaki Petrov, Dimitrina Baeva, and many others. Six of the authors included in the anthology are from Bourgas—Stoyanka Grudova, Kerana Angelova, Roza Boyanova, Elka Vasileva, Bina Kals, and Ivo Rafailov.