Interview with poet Leonard Kress by Ryan Sparks

by Ryan Sparks

Franklin Street Noise is proud to present its first interview. Poet Leonard Kress took the time to talk with me about his latest publication, Orphics, the importance of classical knowledge, transcending the status quo in contemporary American poetry, and the tricky path a translator-poet walks.

“Myth is timeless and universal. So, speaking with uncharacteristic boldness, why couldn’t Orpheus be living in America’why can’t ‘I’ also be, at times, Orpheus? Just as I think I/you/anyone could also be Orpheus or Daphne or Zeus or raven or coyote…”

What made you decide to focus on Orpheus for this collection of poems instead of any of the other characters from Greek mythology? Is there a certain interest you have in Orpheus, or did he make himself available to you in some way?

I’ll have to backtrack a bit’for a long time I was feeling that my poems were getting too long and too diffuse. They were tending to be about 3-4 pages and, moreover, they were becoming more and more collage-like, a sort of manipulation of texts and I had the sense that I was becoming more of an “editor” or anthologist instead of a poet. So, as a way of combating this tendency’after hearing about the poet Ronald Wallace who apparently has been writing a sonnet a day for several years’I decided to try the same. And I thought of these sonnets as exercises and I wanted to be pretty direct, using the ‘materials’ of my daily life as subject matter. So I began, and it went pretty well for most of a summer’but then gradually, the figure of Orpheus showed up on that sonnet doorstep. That explains the sonnet format, at least, something I felt a bit strange doing’a bit too retro and formal’both things that I like to think I don’t especially stand for as a poet. (Though, obviously, I’m wrong about myself.)

It seems that there is a lot of playing with identity in Orphics. Was this something you planned on from the beginning, tying in your own experiences to Orpheus’?

As I said, Orpheus just showed up. I hadn’t used him as a character or figure in poems before, though I’ve always been attracted to and seduced by mythology and mythological figures. At first Orpheus seemed too obvious a choice and I would have kicked him out immediately if I had realized then (a few years back) how often he appears in American poetry. I hadn’t yet seen the Greg Orr book (Orpheus and Eurydice) or even that anthology about Orpheus poems. The reason I allowed him to remain as subject and object of many of the poems (the only reason) is that I soon realized that very few poets seem willing to remove Orpheus from his classical context. I guess the myth is just too perfect as it is (as it’s told by Ovid.) But I’m assuming that all poets (should I be saying all or most male poets?) relate to Orpheus’his powers, his love, his descent, his lost love, his despair, his wandering, his terrible death, and, finally, his prophetic powers, etc. Also, my view of mythology formed by much much exposure to the ideas of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung and Erich Neuman, is that myth is timeless and universal. So, speaking with uncharacteristic boldness, why couldn’t Orpheus be living in America’why can’t ‘I’ also be, at times, Orpheus? Just as I think I/you/anyone could also be Orpheus or Daphne or Zeus or raven or coyote, etc.

Since most of your previous collections have pomes with a strong sense of personal narration, do you feel this meshing of voices, yours and Orpheus’, detracts in any way from your own voice? Did it change how you wrote or how much you could tell? In the same way, did you worry that attaching this new backdrop of American themes–civil protests, hitchhiking, etc.–hinders the power of Orpheus’ myth?

No, I think that linking the narrative/experiential voice with Orpheus’ enhances the voice. I think all poetic voice is in some way a meshing of voices. Actually, I think most narrative itself is possible through some sort of meshing of voices. I don’t feel any detraction’and I don’t think it changed the way that I described or wrote or narrated. I do wonder, though, since you raise the question, whether it does diminish the power of the Orpheus myth. I’d like to think that it doesn’t, that Orpheus did things besides sing to the trees and animals and descend to the underworld, etc.

Do you feel that works like Orphics are sort of a sign-post back towards the Greek myths for people who are unfamiliar with them? Do you feel that a knowledge of the past is an important thing for readers of poetry today?

Yes, in a way’that’s the teacher in me. I’ve been teaching for two decades now and even though I try to fight the instinct, it’s just too much a part of the way that I relate to the world and people. My wife often complains that I get what she calls my ‘teaching voice’ sometimes when I talk to her, especially during an argument. She, of course, and rightly so, finds it obnoxious. I guess I was hoping that writing shorter poems would diminish that part of me’but I guess not. I do think readers need to know what the important references or allusions in the poem are, that these shouldn’t be some sort of challenge or dare to the reader. (I guess, ultimately, I side more with T.S. Eliot and his Wasteland than I would with Ezra Pound and his Cantos. Though I always considered myself more of a follower of Pound and people like Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. Those were the poets who brought me to poetry in my late teens, and although they’re all very erudite and scholarly, they’re also very obscure.

About “Impenetrable Grotto” you write,

“This Orphic is something between a translation and a version of a poem by Szymon Zimorowic…In translating this poem I was also interested in translating it into an Orphic. The original was not a sonnet, and it was spoken by a young man…who makes no mention of Orpheus.”

How much can a translator alter a poem before it is no longer a translation? Are there certain themes, words, or images that you feel must absolutely be represented to maintain a sense of the original?

If there’s anything at all controversial about Orphics it’s this. I’ve done a lot of work translating Polish poetry. I completed a verse translation of Adam Mickiewicz’s Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz recently. I also translated some of the work of the Polish Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski and the Polish Baroque poet, Szymon Zimorowic. But here’s the controversy’a very miniscule one and one that only other literary translators would even care about. Although when reading translations I like to feel that these are accurate and faithful to the original, I also know that that faithfulness and accuracy can lead to bad poetry. In Kochanowski I had to deal with things like the prevalence of nightingales and sighs as well as obscure references’not obscure, however, to Polish readers. So when I began translating I made the conscious decision to do a few things’to add necessary information to the translation itself rather than relegating it to footnotes; to incorporate (rarely though) things from my own life if, and only if, they seemed to fit the sense of the original poem. In Orphics I took it a bit further’I made non-sonnets into sonnets, I left out parts, and I insinuated Orpheus into the poem. I would only do these drastic things in the context of a collection like Orphics, and I think if I call them ‘versions’ (at least to myself) rather than ‘translations,’ well, then, I’m okay with it. I’ve always been interested in alternative theories of translations’particularly older ones. It was common in the Middle Ages to transpose/transport the original into a new place’for example, from Rome to France. I do think that in some ways I had two influences for my kind of translating: Seamus Heaney in his Sweeney poems and Robert Lowell in his Imitations.

What are some of the lessons you have learned about being a poet through your work in translation?

I think the greatest lesson relates to the amount of leeway a poet has in terms of influence, borrowing, even outright stealing. I know that it’s nothing new, but it was new to me’a sense that stealing, borrowing, appropriating the work of other poets is okay. Most of my ‘training’ in terms of translation came from a three-year project of translating (retranslating, I suppose, since it has been translated into English several times) The 19th century Polish Romantic epic of Adam Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz. This was a huge process, and I think I began it as a sort of challenge to an essay that Donald Hall wrote. I don’t remember which, but I’m sure it was from his ranting against the McPoem and the McFA program proliferation. Of course, I was also deeply involved with Polish literature and even spent a year in Poland while working on it. (My wife, who is a printmaker, had a Fulbright to the Art Academy in Krakow.) In that particular essay, I think Hall challenged poets to step outside of their MFA/MCPoem world and do something like, say, translate the Odyssey. So it did make a lot of sense. And I think this huge and long project’the original consists of 10,000 rhymed Alexandrine couplets and runs about 300 pages long’helped me feel more legitimate as a poet standing at the rear of a line of poets stretching back to Homer. I felt more a part of that tradition’more like poets like Dryden who translated Virgil’s Aeneid and Alexander Pope, who translated both Greek epics. And also, because I think that in many ways I turned the Polish epic into something that was at least in part my own’that I felt more part of a tradition that included Wordsworth and his super-long Preludes and Milton with his Paradise Lost. As I write this, I see that I suffered from great delusions’but that is what I felt, and it did allow me, to myself at least, to separate myself from the zillions of other contemporary American writers of the page-long, free verse lyric, based on personal experience (usually some sort of trauma or victimization or loss) that is then overcome, etc. I do feel, though, after writing this, I should also add, quoting Seinfeld, ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with it” because I am clearly and unashamedly a contemporary American poet with an MFA and lots and lots of workshop experience, and I do write that sort of poem.

Is there a reason you choose to translate (or perhaps I should say publish) certain poems? Is there a certain challenge you seek for yourself, or do the ones you choose strike you a certain way?

Why do I translate’well, I love Polish (and also Russian and German and French) poetry, and translating is a way of connecting with what I love at a deeper level. And once I started translating, it did become a pretty important part of my writing. On a more mundane level’in some ways it’s easier to get translations published (I think) because it’s a way of saying to an editor (and an editor saying to a reader), “See, here’s a poet who’s not just concerned with his or her own self-expression and petty life.” It also impresses Americans who tend not to know other languages well enough to translate’though for many poets who translate not knowing the language doesn’t seem to create any impediment! I remember virtually nothing of the French I took in high school and only began to study Russian a little and then Polish a lot after college. It became something of an obsession to me’I even lived in a Polish community in Philadelphia for years and traveled many times to Poland. I guess I always envied bilingual people like my wife, whose first language was Polish, even though she was born in the US. I guess I’m trying to make some sort of point about identity both as a human ad a poet’and this deep connection (provided by translating) has been a way of ‘translating’ myself out of the suburbs and the suburban ethos that I was raised in/with in the 50s and 60s. And, yes, I only translate those poems that I feel some poetic connection to. For years I’ve wanted to take on another ‘epic’ translation project, particularly some of the long poems of Juliusz Slowacki (whose writings seem to resemble those of Percy Shelley), but I just can’t seem to connect.

How much of your voice or style do you allow into your translations?

A lot! Though I still think the translations do stand as legitimate literary translations’whatever that might mean. I remember hearing a reading a long time ago by Thomas Transtromer, the Swedish poet. The translations were by Robert Bly, and it struck me and others there that the translations were good, but they sounded a lot like Robert Bly poems. My sense at the time was that this was both a good thing and a bad thing. I don’t want to feel that I’m diminishing the work of a great poet by recasting it into my voice’yet at the same time, I don’t want it not to be in my voice. The translations in Orphics are probably closer to the Bly school of translations’because I want them to fit into the series as a whole and not stand out too much.

Leonard Kress’ poetry, fiction, and translations have appeared in American Poetry Review, Massachusetts Review, Missouri Review, New Letters, Quarterly West, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. He teaches at Owens College in northwest Ohio where he lives with his wife and their three kids.

Leonard Kress’ chapbook Orphics and other works can be purchased from Amazon. His outstanding collection The Centralia Mine Fire can be read here.

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