Exilé Sans Frontières talks to Kristina Andersson Bicher about poetry, translating Marie Lundquist, and how her own writing comes to life.
Exilé Sans Frontières: We live in troubled times. Pandemics, climate emergency, wars, forced displacement. Do you think that now, more than ever, poetry--and art in general--has a critical role to play? What role would that be?
Kristina Andersson Bicher: Lacan said the reason we go to poetry is not for wisdom, but for the dismantling of wisdom. And as we are in the midst of deeply troubled times, then surely our collective wisdom has failed us or we wouldn’t be here. And so we look deeper and elsewhere--past artificial and societal constructs--for the reassurance we crave. Which is not the reassurance of ‘everything will be ok,’ a sentiment both facile and already proven inadequate. We need to drink from the deepest darkest well of not-okness, of what simply is (truth, beauty), for that profound nourishment. Which is to say, art. I am a huge fan of Ilya Kaminsky, especially his brilliant Deaf Republic. With surety, he matches up the power of love against war and destruction. In an interview he said that even the worst of moments contain tenderness and that we have a duty to report those moments as well. Kaminsky posted something on Twitter recently along the lines of Putins come and go but literature endures, has power. Truth, love, and beauty are what we live on.
ESF: When did you first decide you wanted to write? Or was it something that snuck up on you? How about translating?
KAB: Poetry as a genre found me, though I’ve always been writing in some form. My earliest writing experiences were in journalism and essays, followed by more analytical work. At one point in my life, I found myself at a proverbial crossroads and decided to go to graduate school in writing to see what other voices were inside me. I tried my hand at a novel and wasn’t particularly successful though I did write one. Short stories were a little better. But I had next to no interest in plot or characters as such. Poetry gave me the tabula rasa that I needed. I’m also more of a visual person and a music aficionado so poetry plays into those traits as well. In terms of translation, I came to that more recently. I’ve always loved other cultures and languages and studied French, Swedish, and a little German and Spanish. Both sides of my family are either immigrants or first-generation American and so I have this longing for the ‘old country,’ a place or emotion that lives in them but is not accessible to me. But I feel its lack like a phantom limb.
ESF: You published a translation of Marie Lundquist's collection of poetry I walk around gathering up my garden for the night, from which we have two stunning pieces below. Can you describe the book for us? What holds it together?
KAB: In terms of broad strokes, it’s a collection of short prose-like poems which vary from 5 to 25 lines, only of few of which run to two pages. The language is simple and unadorned. Economical. Image-driven. Condensed. Cinematic. Myth-bound. The collection explores people, relationships, and the power we have over one another. And how our love and desire make us vulnerable.
I go out into the woods. Surrounded by wooden idols, I recognize myself. Man’s origins are wood. That’s where the thirst comes from.
In my garden, there’s an open vessel. Leaves collect on the bottom. Animals come there to drink. Of all the bowls, I want to save only this one.
ESF: What kind of entity do you think haunts the book?
KAB: I sense a curious-but-cautious child as our Virgil who guides us through these broken parables and slightly amiss scenes so that we might observe the doings of those odd beasts, humans. The child has in her rucksack a Bible and a book of nursery tales which prove absurd and useless at every turn and yet frame the telling. ESF: There is a sense the collection is rich with Tranströmer overtones. Do you get the feeling that, like Tranströmer’s poetry, it is in a way bringing back news from the future?
KAB: Interesting question! To start with their similarities, one could say both Tranströmer and Lundquist root their work in the everyday world. And both poets’ works contain a certain sparseness and mystery, perhaps strangeness. But then their interests can diverge. Tranströmer unpacks the invisible by reaching toward mysticism and employing a certain transcendental shift. His stillnesses seem to yearn for the divine whereas Lundquist’s stillnesses may contain only silence or footprints. Her concern seems less about the future unless we are doomed to repeat ourselves and thus our future is foretold.
ESF: When translating Marie’s work, did you encounter any resistance from the poems, or anything that threw you off-guard?
KAB: I wouldn’t say that exactly. I just needed to find her voice in the poems and then they opened up for me. I would also add that I worked closely with Marie on this translation and it was invaluable in understanding her aesthetic and word choices. I’m also grateful to Bitter Oleander Press for their support of this work and I hope you buy the book! ESF: How has this translation experience affected you as a poet?
KAB: I felt a strong kinship to Marie and her work that was almost uncanny. I had only read a few of her poems when I decided to translate the whole book but I guess I was guided by instinct. I still can feel her influence on me. Perhaps I’m writing poems that are more like stories.
ESF: Let's talk about the process of translating more generally. What is this like for you?
KAB: I’m a very slow and deliberate translator. I care deeply about every word and I try to never make assumptions. It’s kind of like the art school advice of drawing what you see and not what you know. Especially in the earliest drafts, I want to make sure to remove myself from the equation and be fully open to what the writer has put on the page so that I can clearly hear their voice and understand their enterprise. I might do more intentional shaping in later drafts. ESF: Is writing and/or translating something that confers a kind of balance to you?
KAB: Writing my own work and translating are complementary activities for me that draw on different sides of the brain. Writing is like finding which window to open. There’s no set map or path into it. With a translation, you’re already inside and sort of finding your way out. You start in medias res with this preformed thing and try to unlock it. Both processes though require editing and revision; for me, translation needs even more as I continue to sit in the language and feel it open up and try to understand what it is telling me. ESF: What do you look for in the poets you translate?
KAB: I look to be gripped. I look for boldness. That might be form or language or the basic conceit of the collection. I look for a voice I haven’t heard before.
ESF: 2020 was an eventful year for you as an author. As well as the Marie Lundquist translation, you also published your second poetry collection, She-Giant in the Land of Here-We-Go-Again. Tell us a little about your own writing. What do your poems usually grow out of? How do they come into being?
KAB: Each one has its own genesis and they vary. Most often, a phrase or metaphor will just come to me, usually when I’m not paying attention or when I’m taking a walk. And then I’ll play and build from there. Sometimes I want to try out a form or give myself a prompt. The hardest part for me is just getting going, especially when I’m harried or not feeling especially loose. Once I get a few lines down, they lead me where they want to go. The second challenge for me is putting fresh eyes on an existing poem. Going back to it and viewing it from 30,000 feet, seeing how it moves. If I’m feeling lazy, I’ll just start wordsmithing what’s on the page but then the poem just closes up even more. ESF: Is your poetry informed by certain ideas from the outset, that you work in along the way, or do ideas/words tend to just jump out at you in the process? Is there a constant which lingers throughout?
KAB: Words definitely arise in me; I’m in love with language and that’s the fun part. Most of my poems try to explore complicated mood states, things that scare me or I don’t understand or can’t seem to move past. Consequently, I think my work can be a little dark (whatever that is) but in so-called real life, I’m a sunny, can-do person. Albeit complicated. But I’m trying more and more to write about what … happy? … things and find the complexity in them and the deeper beauty in their complexity. ESF: Is biographical content something you grapple with in your writing?
KAB: Yes, for sure. But I’ve long since stopped thinking that the “I” is me. The protagonist in my poems, whether the poems are written in the first person or not, is a construct like the “I” is a construct. What do “I” really know of “me” that isn’t filtered through “my” lens? I just let a voice develop and speak back to me, or speak through the poems, and not worry about who it is. My poems often do have a little root in reality, a toe stamp, in a thing that happened, but that doesn’t mean I’m wedded or obligated to accurate reportage. ESF: What somatic experiences, if any, are relevant to you in your work?
KAB: It’s funny, I tend to be an over-thinker but any wisdom I have has come from listening to the body. From intuition and from sensation. And my poems definitely come from the body. Word- and thought-storms can spin in one’s brain but that’s just a smoke screen, to mix a few metaphors, covering up the important stuff. When internal words fail, I try to just feel how a certain thing is living in my body, where it’s lodged. So much of my life experiences I have simply swallowed and they gestate. ESF: It's fascinating to hear how your work comes to life. And you now also host a monthly poetry reading series--SEAM--on social media. Tell us more about this initiative: How did it start? What do you hope its online audience will get out of it? How do you select the poets that feature in it?
KAB: One huge upside to readings moving online during the pandemic was that access to poetry has been blown wide open. You no longer have to live in a big city to hear great work. This also means there are more opportunities to feature poets who may not be able to travel for readings. So the curation possibilities are super exciting. My poet friend Kathleen Ossip and I had been talking about poets that excite us and how public exposure to interesting work is uneven. The idea behind SEAM is to feature writers in all stages of their life in poetry, to combine well-recognized poets with mid-career and emerging poets. We spend a lot of time on the groupings, considering how different voices will bounce off each other. We also try to represent the vast spectrum of contemporary poetry. We picked a time slot on Sunday afternoons that would allow people to zoom in from all over. Our first reading featured poets in London and in Puerto Rico. One of our listeners dials in from Israel. In terms of upcoming readings, this fall we’ll feature some translators from Danish, Hebrew, and Czech. Stay tuned! ESF: We sure will! Can you give our readers an idea of the projects you're currently working on?
KAB: I just started translating the work of Swedish poet Hanna Riisager, specifically her collection För Kvalia. She quotes Simone Weil’s book Gravity and Grace in the epigraph and references it throughout so I picked up that book as well and am digging in now. I’ve also started doing a little translation work with Marie Lundquist of her writings on photography. The overlap with her poems is beautiful. And working my way through Södergran and Tranströmer are ongoing projects. ESF: All very exciting. And finally, we'd love to know what you're reading now.
KAB: In addition to the Weil book I mentioned, I’m catching up on books I wanted to read when they first came out, like Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell and Jericho Brown’s The Tradition. I just read Bianca Stone’s What is Otherwise Infinite and BK Fisher’s Ceive which was fabulous in form and language. And Neruda’s Book of Questions. Because I have questions!
I walk around gathering my garden for the night, by Marie Lundquist (tr. Kristina Andersson Bicher), Bitter Oleander Press, 2020
SEAM: a poetry reading series hosted by Kristina Andersson Bicher and Kathleen Ossip is live every second Sunday of the month at 3pm Eastern time. Watch previous episodes and find out about upcoming events on Facebook and Instagram.
Kristina Andersson Bicher is a poet, essayist, and translator. Her debut full-length collection She-Giant in the Land of Here-We-Go-Again was published in 2020 by MadHat Press. Her chapbook, Just Now Alive, was a finalist in the New Women’s Voices Series (FLP, 2014). Her translation of Swedish poet Marie Lundquist's collection I walk around gathering up my garden for the night was published in a bilingual edition in 2020 by Bitter Oleander Press. For more information, go to www.kristinabicher.com/