Hildred Crill is a poet, artist, translator, essayist, who intellectually grips our minds, guiding us through diverging terrains of fresh insight. We examine self, environment, perspective, and translation. Her anthropological lens unearths staples of our existence from varying points of view. We are prompted to question, “How wholesome are thoughts about any poisoned, rotting carcasses?” Continuing, “People have been condemning wanton destruction for a long time.”
As translator, Crill reveals the balance of her position as medium between her own sense of self, and the self of the original poet’s work. Similar to her own poem, “Portrait of Self,” translator is artist, she discusses, “viewing the model from an individual vantage point and interpreting and creating.” Here Crill reminds us as readers to importantly, keep our eyes fixed “on the artist behind the model” and notice if this “fidelity falls”.
Crill’s poems have appeared in numerous publications. Her chapbook The Upstairs Hammer was published in 2010 by Argos Books (http://argosbooks.org/). She has published book reviews in Web Del Sol Review of Books and Ars Interpres, as well as English translations of Per Wästberg’s poems in Ars Interpres and in Ortsbestämning / Determination of Place by Per Wästberg (trilingual edition, Ars Interpres Publications 2008). She was co-editor of Under the Legislature of Stars: 62 New Hampshire Poets (Oyster River Press 1999) and served as editor of Alien Matter by Regina Derieva (Spuyten Duyvil 2005). She holds an MFA from New England College. Since 2004, she has lived in Stockholm, Sweden.
1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?
I grew up in a house lined with books, where everyone read and wrote. The first poems I remember hearing were in my mother’s voice and they remain some of the poems that mean the most to me, that feel rooted inside me. I still hear them in my mother’s voice, Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” Blake’s “The Tyger,” Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” Hopkins’ “As kingfishers catch fire” among others. I found more poems I loved at school and became very involved with a small set of books in my twenties because of lack of time and money. I read and reread what I had at hand, Plath’s Ariel plus three books by contemporary poets: Linda Pastan’s A.M./P.M. and Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist and North. The first poets I became aware of made me want to write.
2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?
The beautiful state of New Hampshire is home to many generous writers from whom I had the fortune and pleasure to learn in small writers groups, during various community poetry projects we worked on together and over long friendships (Mimi White, Katie Towler, Mark DeCartaret, Donald M. Murray, Jean Pedrick, Marie Harris and many, many others). In Henniker, N.H., I joined the first class of the low-residency MFA program in poetry at New England College. I am grateful to all the faculty and fellow students I met there especially for the conversation, made even more memorable by the intensity of long residency days. And all my life, the conversations with the members of my family and dear friends that take place, roam around in my head and sometimes are picked up again years or decades later have always inspired me.
3.) How has your own work changed over time and why?
One change I have observed in recent years comes from moving from a woods in New Hampshire, where moose and porcupines sometimes wandered by and beavers built a dam and where I saw a barred owl feeding her baby chunks of fresh gray squirrel, to the middle of the city of Stockholm. I have always been caught up in thinking about the physical production of language and the difficult act of communication between people, but now that I’m constantly in crowds of strangers walking through squares and traveling on buses, trains and escalators with a new language all around me I have become even more obsessed with all this and am struck with sheer amazement at the fact that language works, more or less.
4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?
I grew up in Washington, D.C., where I visited the awe-inspiring, free-of-charge museums on school field trips, family outings and on my own as soon as I was allowed to ride the bus by myself. It was wonderful to stand before and scrutinize such a wide range of objects chosen for display, from the heavily guarded Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian to the horrifying bottled body parts at the Naval Medical Museum. At the National Gallery of Art, images of paintings became permanently stamped on my brain with their shapes and full colors: Gaugin’s Self-Portrait, Whistler’s The White Girl, Cassatt’s Girl Arranging Her Hair, Carnevale’s The Annunciation, Manet’s The Dead Toreador along with The Tragic Actor, Dalí’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper and many more. Particular novels, especially those of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, also became fixed internally. Exposure early on to all sorts of genres exerts unavoidable influence, even if this becomes the impulse to struggle against elements within the genres. Music started to influence me more as an adult as my children were growing up. I love being introduced to fascinating, versatile, incredible artists. This week I’ve been listening to Leyla McCalla, who plays cello and banjo and sings; she plays Bach on the streets of New Orleans, Haitian folk songs, her compositions written to Langston Hughes’ poems as well as her own songs. In recent years, scientific writing has influenced me because I have been teaching it and have thus needed to look at it really closely to see what makes some scientific articles successful: how clear, concise and straightforward language can express astonishing complexities; how a clean line of argument holds remarkable beauty; how years of travel and physical and mental labor can be made coherent. These influences structure, move and challenge me deeply. The early images, words and sounds persist and I keep looking for more of the same.
5.) What are your plans for the future?
I hope to keep writing poems, translating poems into English, writing poems in Swedish and drawing obsessively.
6.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?
Poets whose next poem or book I am always eager to see include Susan Stewart, Louise Glück, Anne Carson, Heather McHugh and Medbh McGuckian. Particularly after their latest books, I am waiting to read what Jo Shapcott and Ann Jäderlund will write next. I am excited by the work of poets who cross over language divides and/or move to a new country, Valzhyna Mort, Marina Blitshteyn, Zhang Er, Jen Hadfield and others, or who move across several arts like Bianca Stone. It is overwhelming in fact that so many new books of poetry by so many wonderful poets keep appearing. Also, since moving to Sweden, I’ve been trying to catch up on reading poets from early last century, especially Karin Boye and Edith Södergran.
7.) “Autumn at Peak, Pepperell Cove,” a poem of yours that first appeared in The New Hampshire Review, reads “I manage the afternoon/ as if I were a shadow,/ undoing the stun of sky.” Here the landscape of a relationship ultimately dips into the colors of the wind, a sky, a shadow, dampening time with a “mute”. Can you describe how the ascension of the self here is placed in the landscape of light & time, life & death, & music, and how this relates to your previous negotiations of our ability to express the self externally?
When I wrote that poem, I was living in New England, one of the stormiest places on the planet. I remember an emotional conversation on a night near the wild ocean in Maine followed by a bright morning. Everything collided in the storm and aftermath.
It’s hard to live in places like the far northeastern U.S. without the natural world entering in or without the solitary self being externalized there, but that produces hazardous impulses because landscapes can become generic blankets to manipulate. I try to remember what Charles Simic, who has lived many years in New Hampshire, says: “I distrust poets who have a mystical experience each time they look at a tree or a falling leaf. It just doesn’t happen. It’s a kind of fakery” (from The Uncertain Certainty). Simic goes on to point out how complicated and difficult cities are. People can see nature on their own terms in a way that just isn’t possible with cities full of other people.
And now more people belong to the urban landscape than to the countryside, which is one reason I really enjoyed reading and writing about John Kinsella’s Doppler Effect (in a review for Ars Interpres, which you brought up in another question you asked me about externalized self). Kinsella writes beautifully and heartbreakingly about the landscapes of his native South Western Australia, home to monotreme and marsupial. The plants and animals are rapidly heading toward extinction, their habitats flattened by heavy-duty agriculture. Just when I have conjured up the simple version of nature, in Simic’s words, with “all the good, wholesome thoughts it produces in human beings,” I remember how much more there is to it all. How many of us will be able to describe an echidna and its behavior in detail before it vanishes for good? How wholesome are thoughts about any poisoned, rotting carcasses? People have been condemning wanton destruction for a long time. Right now I am fascinated with the particular way history is playing out and with the portrayal of the human self in Kinsella’s book. People arrive from their industrialized cities looking like agricultural machinery, and their machines have put photographic images of landscapes into their human interiors. Their mechanical eyes have extended far outward to examine the Doppler effect; it is possible for observer and observed to be far apart in a vast territory. None of it—space, time, nature, people, cities, self, other—could be simple. But altered distance could bring new perspectives.
8.) In the review published in Ars Interpres, issues 8 & 9 “From the Labyrinth,” you quote Shaun Gallagher, who in the editorial of Janus Head 2007, says there is a difference between “living and experiencing body,” versus the way of being associated in a space such as that of a nonliving object. Later in the essay, the review comments on contemporary technological advances that have regarded the subject and found as stated by Ingar Brink, “artist and viewer have more in common than what distinguishes them.” The discussion then enters translation and role of artist in this interplay of commentary. In your poem “A Portrait of the Self,” first appearing in Interpoezia, you have a passage as follows, “each time he altered my look. My chin/ twisted toward the next day while my profile// jerked to the past.” This relationship is similar to the artist/viewer relationship as well as translation. Can you please elaborate on your own process of translation, the translator in a way being both artist and viewer as well as how these negotiations have affected your own work?
One particularly compelling aspect of that issue of Janus Head is how many ways the idea of “the situated body” has been interpreted. So I am happy that you mention this together with translation. A thinking, feeling person somewhere in the world now or at some time in the past makes a poem, a person who is a moving, physical being with many senses, with physical angles on what surrounds. Then a translator comes along with her own complicated situation and perspectives, physically, mentally, artistically. Imagine what the poet may have endured so that something resistant could be pushed into language, a particular language, through finding a rhythm or a phrase that lets loose energy, urgency and precision. Then someone else needs to find a way to push that into another language, simultaneously keeping track of what was in the poem and releasing it. Studying dead languages when I was younger was thrilling because I felt reading ancient poems from another culture in the original was about as close to time and space travel as I could get. But the number of languages people learn has limits so thank heavens poems are translated in spite of the impossibility. It’s horrible to contemplate having no chance to know some astounding poem about the human experience that’s out there. Ideally, great works of art are independent of culture and thus at some level independent of a particular language. Of course an enormous array of details must be considered when a person sits down to translate. So many decisions, so many levels to orchestrate in one language (individual sounds, structures of rhythm, syntax of sentences and phrases, word structure, scope of an individual word’s meaning, larger structures of meaning, style, etc.) as a faithful (in some way) response to someone else’s tight, perfect lines in another language. At one moment, everything might come together, the distinct levels might integrate, the translator’s tracks might disappear and the universal emerges, but there will always be loss.
Each language and each poet create particular tensions for a translator, depending also on the target language, the moment in history, the type of poem and other aspects. Translating contemporary Swedish poems into English involves various interesting language-specific challenges. For example, translating Per Wästberg’s poems, I observed that searching for the exact word can lead to strange decision-making. Cognates abound in these language cousins so temptation to take the shortcut arises, sometimes a dangerous move even where connotation or scope of meaning differs only slightly. Some splendidly compact compounds of Swedish feel dismantled in English phrasal equivalents (e.g. “bärkraft”/ “strength to carry”). Increased borrowing of English words, altered to fit Swedish or seemingly taken as they are, can pose a problem when that Swedish use of English needs to be put back into English: a subtle tonal effect or emphasis by way of punch line can be lost. In a short lyric poem much of this is bypassed and the universal heart of the poem carried across. Dryden’s dictum — about attempting to make Vergil speak the English he would have, had he been born in England — might be upheld. But what about long poems like The Odyssey that are bound to have rich cultural detail, much of it unfamiliar to us, as well as words that occur only once? Or what about some physical element — such as the extreme light and dark in Scandinavia — being translated into American English and culture in such a way that all of its manifestations can be construed as mystical even when that element may occur in the poem largely because the Earth was carefully observed? Are we just glad the reader found something? Or do we wish a translator’s tracks might be a little visible at times?
But not too visible. Some Swedes, who have excellent command of English, actually read some English translation of Swedish and will fortunately catch this kind of overstepping, as in the case of Auden’s version of Dag Hammarskjöld’s book—I won’t mention the English title since even that has been called into question. (See Mike Hoge, “Swedes Dispute Translation of a U.N. Legend’s Book.” The New York Times: 22 May 2005.) Translation is an art but it requires fidelity to someone else’s art. This doesn’t mean a so-called literal translation, which can’t really exist; going from one language to another involves real transformation. Remaking someone’s poem involves all the artistic skills a translator can muster. So how fidelity happens is a complex endeavor made up of a host of small language brushstrokes as well as a large-canvass vision. Fidelity won’t be the same every time and is thus open to interpretation. So the translator is like the artist in that poem “Portrait of Self” viewing the model from an individual vantage point and interpreting and creating, but that translator also keeps a steady eye on the artist behind the model. If that slippery fidelity falls, we can hope someone notices.
The conflicts and less than perfect attempts continue. For timeless poems, new generations want time-restricted language renewed in new translations. Publishers still manage funding for wonderful bilingual editions, which help with maintaining a reasonable perspective whether the languages appear in different writing systems as in Chinese-English editions or look like parallel universes as in Swedish-English editions. All this teaches intense engagement with language at all levels, which I hope can be internalized and will come back out when I write without my knowing about it at the time.