The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Aase Berg and translator Johannes Göransson about the poetry collection Transfer Fat. We are also joined this month by Garth Graeper of Ugly Duckling Presse, who published Transfer Fat.
This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Aase Berg, Johannes Göransson and Garth Graeper. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can read the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Gaby Calvocoressi: We’ll get started in a few moments but let me just say this is the first time we’ve had the good fortune to have so many parts of the process of a book being represented. And we’re really grateful. Feel free to take your time answering questions. Folks will pop in.
Mark: Freezing in New Orleans but not Fargo. Freezing thankfully
Garth Graeper: Sounds good!
Gaby Calvocoressi: And I will ask some basic starting questions about the press and the process. It becomes a conversation and it also might be nice to hear a bit about each step.
Brian S: It’s 12 Fahrenheit in Des Moines right now, which is like 200 below in Celsius from what I understand. I’m not good with numbers. Or with cold.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Aase & Johannes, your book is our first translation.
Brian S: Go ahead and get us started Gaby
Gaby Calvocoressi: Great. Hi everyone! And welcome to the very first Rumpus Transcontinental Poetry Book Club Chat! We feel so lucky to Aase and Johannes and Garth here.
Mark: Apologies in advance for bad thumb typing the chicklet keyboard
Gaby Calvocoressi: I thought we might start at the beginning of the book being chosen and brought to print. Aase, most of the book club has only read the book in manuscript form, so they haven’t seen the hard copy yet.
So, Garth. Maybe introduce yourself and tell us about Ugly Duckling and the business of choosing and making (and everyone else should feel free to jump in).
Brian S: Gaby have you gotten a hard copy yet?
Gaby Calvocoressi: I have not
Gaby Calvocoressi: I’ve just been laying the pages out on the floor and feeling like some lucky archivist.
Brian S: I’ve been reading it on my iPad, like I seem to read most things these days.
Gaby Calvocoressi: I’d really love to have folks talk about the experience of the paper and virtual manuscript as well. It works super well on the screen
Garth Graeper: Sure. I am an editor at Ugly Duckling Presse. We are a volunteer-run not-for-profit publisher based in Brooklyn, NY. We publish among other things, poetry, poetry in translation. Johannes sent this MS a couple years ago. I had worked with him (in 2005, I think) on another translation from Swedish: Henry Parland’s Ideals Clearance.
Brian S: Garth, about how many books do you do in a year? And about how long does it take for UDP to take a book from acceptance to finished copies for sale?
Kat Grossman: I think the hard copy experience will be different. the book is smaller than the 8 1/2 x 11 paper I printed it out on. The text is placed deliberately on the page (top and bottom). Will “top” and “bottom” seem different in the actual hard copy?
Garth Graeper: We do about 25 books a year, some full-length and some hand-made chapbooks.
It depends, but usually 2 or so years.
Brian S: Aase, how long did this manuscript take you? Was this originally published in Sweden and then picked up by UDP?
Garth Graeper: Johannes, I’m not sure if you remember, but you sent in the MS for what became Remainland way back when. UDP couldn’t do it at the time, but since then I’ve wanted to publish a book of Aase’s. She is an amazing poet.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Or did you come to Ugly Duckling with the book, Johannes?
Johannes: The book was first published in Sweden back in I think 2001, as Forsla fett.
Gaby Calvocoressi: And you had read the book before. When it originally came out?
Johannes: Yes, Garth, I first asked Ugly D to do a selected poems, Remainland, back around 2003. I ended up publishing it with my own press, Action Books, which I started around then.
Gaby Calvocoressi: right, this is a chat full of small press publishers!
Gaby Calvocoressi: Aase, what is it like….this delay or the book coming out again after it has already been born? Do you experience it differently in translation?
Johannes: I read the book in Swedish when it first came out. Aase sent it to me. I was already translating her earlier work.
Gaby Calvocoressi: That’s right. You two are in a good long literary partnership.
Brian S: Aase, did you feel the urge to go back and revisit these poems once Johannes started to translate them?
Aase: The manuscript toook me about a year I think I´ts interesting to see it on print again, cause I left it behind long ago, but now I’m getting back.
Actually I leave all books behind when I have written them – and feel ashamed for a couple of years. But then I can read them again.
Garth Graeper: I wish it would have been possible for everyone to receive their books prior to the chat. We tried! I think they look pretty nice.
Mark: Johannes: there seems to be a stylistic correspondence of this book and Colonial Pageant. Did that draw you to Aase’s work or this particular book?
Johannes: Mark, I have been reading Aase’s work since the mid-90s. I first read it in a small journal and then my grandmother bought it for me and sent it over to me. That was the book Hos Radjur that Black Ocean published in translation a couple of years ago. I think we’re definitely in conversation artistically.
Gaby Calvocoressi: That’s a great question, Mark. I’d love to hear Johannes and Aase talk about the ways they see themselves relating as poets. Both in the translation and in the way their individual poems work.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Is that With deer?
Brian S: How closely did the two of you work on this translation? Johannes, did you ever run your translations past Aase, ask for suggestions, etc?
Johannes: I keep dragging them up…. Forcing you to read them again…
Yes, I send everything to Aase and we talk things over. It’s a very fruitful way of reading, of thinking about both Aase’s work in particular and language in general.
Yes, that’s With Deer in English.
Aase: I trust Johannes totally with the translations. He creates his own poetry, it’s something between the words I wrote and the words he would write if I wasn’t present, I guess
Mark: Reading translator comments did you consult often on final word choices in the English?
Johannes: it’s fun working with Aase b/c we’re both interested in the possibilities of language, neither of us are the kind that despair that poetry is “lost in translation.”
Brian S: About the translator comments–I’m glad those were at the end of the manuscript, because I attacked the poem first and then saw the strategy behind the translations afterward. I think if I’d read the comments first, it would have changed the way I went at the book.
Julie Brooks Barbour: I agree, Brian. I liked reading about how the poems evolved in translation after I’d read them.
Aase: Comments should always be in the end of books
Mark: Totally agree B
Gaby Calvocoressi: Radjur:Deer Val:Whale I read the book in English and Swedish and was amazed at the sense of play and a real feeling of feeling you both at work.
I found the comments at the end so helpful as well
Garth Graeper: Johannes, I think you mentioned to me that maybe Aase initially thought this book might be untranslateable. I know you worked on this translation for a long time. Did you ever wonder if that might be the case? Either way, I’m glad you kept at it!
katrina: another good morning,late (or earlier?) from the west coast (USA). I’ve not seen the printed book yet, but I love it on the screen!
Johannes: Thanks, Gaby, translating Aase’s work definitely foreground the way art, poetry is mobile, always permutating, not at all static.
Aase: As Johannes have said, I myself translate Swedish into something else. It’s not normal Swedish.
Gaby Calvocoressi: It feels like watching a music composition being made. I’m interested in the notion of “de-formation” you speak of. Is that a process that evolves through the translation
It’s my favorite new language ever, Aase
Brian S: Are you studying Swedish Gaby?
Johannes: Garth, not just Aase but most Swedes I talk to find it an improbable book to translate. But it’s exactly its improbability that makes it an interesting activity; it really forced me think about the act of translation and how words – even letters – are put together.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Katrina, how do experience it on the screen? I love it there too. So far Swedish poetry and Greek translation seems to lend itself to the screen. I’m not sure why…
Mark: The narwhale I first took as a phallic/father reference but the more I read I think I’m wrong. Aase can you talk about that a bit?
Julie Brooks Barbour: Was it the same with images for you, Johannes, that you had to rethink how those are created through words?
Gaby Calvocoressi: I am studying Swedish poetry and its relation to light (of all things). I don’t know the language but I am so interested in the translations I’ve been reading
Julie Brooks Barbour: Mark, thanks for asking about that– the whale and underwater imagery is my favorite in the book.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Aase’s book has sent me even further on the path
Johannes: “Deformation” – in part the reason I use this word is that Aase has a poem in her fourth book, Upland, which is called “the deformation zone”. My wife Joyelle McSweeney and I have a co-written chapbook ccoming out from Ugly D which is called Deformation Zone and which takes that as a model for art and poetry.
Aase: The shape transfers. So I don’t know exactly what the narwhale means. It’s mainly a shape. I think of words like objects, 3D objects.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Can you tell us more about that zone, that idea? (I know the questions are coming fast and furious now so just take your time.)
Aase: Deformation zone is the front of a car, isn’t it? The place where you are supposed to crash and still not get hurt.
Johannes: That’s the deformation zone, I think, where in art objects and words become mobile, move around and attach themselves to other objects and words ambiently.
Julie Brooks Barbour: I love the idea of that, Aase. Gives a new meaning to the way poets can use imagery in their work.
katrina: hi gaby — there’s something about the way the pages alternate (language) and the pacing of all the negative space between upper and lower stanzas on each page… and then, the scrolling. Usually I’m bothered by this, rather than page turning, but the downward movement and back-sweep pause of the alternating Swedish/English makes this pouring out feel powerful. I admit to a bias for the printed object, so I’m excited about the book…
Johannes: Also the conceit of Upland is of the plane crash that never fully crashes – thus kvarlanda (remainland), a pun on the Stockholm airport Arlanda.
Gaby Calvocoressi: I agree about the text. And I’m also excited to get the book. I’d love to talk about animals in this book and as a project in the other books?
This may be such a simple question but can we talk a bit about the hare?
Brian S: I’m sure there comes a point, Johannes, when you have to say “most people aren’t going to get this pun,” right? Is that just a matter of feel for the translator?
Gaby Calvocoressi: and then the whale?
Mark: If narwhale is obscure whale and hare seem very clear in this book.
Gaby Calvocoressi: and the way these animals (as figures and words and symbols) lend themselves to puns and play?
Gaby Calvocoressi: Right, Mark!
Aase: The most interesting thing about the hare is that after I wrote the book I realized in Swedish folklore the hare is transgender
katrina: There’s such a provocative conjunction between the natural animal soft bodies and mechanisms throughout the book — the tensions of tunnels and vehicles with all that soft fur and flesh… and the fluidity of gender — mother, birthed one, dad, etc.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Can you say more about this because I was so interested in the trying to think about the animals and the relation to gender?
Johannes: Brian, I think translating puts on in such a close relationship with a text that it’s basically a state of paranoia or something. One becomes aware of the smallest patterns of letters and words.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Is there a totem system in Swedish? A system where different animals have different symbolic meaning? I’m sure there is…how aware were you of that?
Mark: Is hare the same fertility symbol it carries in English?
katrina: johannes — i read that as “litters and words” at first, which is also evocative…
Johannes: katrina, you’re in the paranoid state of the translator…
Aase: The hare changes gender whenever it likes to. It does that in my book as well. It also changes shape – sometimes fat and soft, sometimes skinny, a skeleton – and yes, it’s also a fertility symbol
Garth Graeper: I agree that these poems would be intensely engaging in any format: on the screen, on the page, on napkins. Still, we love the printed word here at UDP. A lot goes into bringing out the personality of each book. Hopefully this will seem the case when you have the books in your collective hands. There is a lot to try to capture in a book like this! Gaby, I like your invocation of totems here.
katrina: I’m definitely in the paranoid state, so at least now I know i have good company!!
Gaby Calvocoressi: And Mark, in American folklore isn’t the hare also cunning in some way? different from the rabbit…
It’s interesting that the ability to shift gender could relate to the American totem notion of the hare as wiley
Johannes: The hare strikes me as a very fetus-like animal in this changeability of the physical.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Absolutely
Julie: Johannes, do you see the whale in the same way, in its fetus like pose and swimming through caverns? Just curious
Johannes: The whale is even more un-formed, at times it’s just “blubber” (in Aase’s poem that is) feeding on “blubber”.
Brian S: I finally got around to reading Moby Dick late last year, and Melville’s whales kept intruding in on these. It was an interesting experience.
katrina: Given all the anaphora and alliteration, I’m also struck by the way translation not only from language to language, but from poet to “page” happens in a way akin to tessellation. There’s such dynamism within the text unspooling…
Gaby Calvocoressi: Garth, tell us about what happens once you got this manuscript. How did you decide on font, cover art, size of the book? Your own little hare, as it were!
Garth Graeper: The difference in scale with the hare and whale is striking, too. There is no question that these poems are based in a physical world, but on this planet? In what dark, warm corner?
Julie: Johannes, I love the likeness to woman she makes there– the extra fat, the illusion of pregnancy. Especially after reading your notes at the end.
Mark: I took the whale as mother symbol but maybe that’s just father of 2 projecting “I’m so fat…” before childbirth (blubber) but also blubber as nourishment.
Julie: It seems like a kind of underworld to me, Garth, with its ambience. The hare seems more of a real world creature to me. Mark, I agree, blubber as nourishment.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Aase, speaking of shape-shifting I’d love at some point if you’d talk about form and the movement from the prose poems of With Deer to these formally spare poems where the silence and symbol create so much of the formal and emotive density and power.
Johannes: Aase do you want to talk about the birth stuff?There’s also the whole Solaris intertext which Julie’s “underworld” comment gestures toward. It might be interesting to hear what you have to say about Solaris (the movies, the book etc).
Gaby Calvocoressi: For folks who haven’t seen some of the earlier poems, here is “Deer Quake”.
Aase: Gaby, I don´t know exactly what happened with the form when I changed from prose poems. Maybe I was tired of that kind of surrealistic kitsch. I wanted to develop the kitschiness…
Gaby Calvocoressi: !!!
Mark: 2001 was obvious. Didn’t think of Solaris.
Gaby Calvocoressi: I like that word. It’s true, particularly in terms of any form’s ironic possibility.
Thelma: Not to get off the topic, but I found myself puzzling over things like commas, wondering why they were or were not preserved in translation. The bit that reads “Give hare-milk / all whales are / the same whale …” In the Swedish, there was a comma after “hare-milk.” What governed these choices?
Garth Graeper: The book is relatively small: 5.25 x 7 inches. The poems are spare and fill a small space of one page to the next, with, I think a healthful amount of white space throughout. As always, played with many fonts until those selected seemed right. Something that fit both the world of the physical, and also the science-fiction aspect that pervades the book.
Aase: Solaris is the ocean of pain. The name Harey – the woman who always comes back in new, tormented versions – sounds like hare to me. I don’t know if the name has a meaning in English.
Johannes: And Hal (the computer from 2001) means “slippery” in Swedish.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Are there major differences between the book, TV movie and movies?
Mark: Going to have to go back and read or watch Solaris now then reread.
Brian S: I’ve never read or seen Solaris. I think my nerd-cred is in danger. I’ll have to rectify that.
Johannes: The book have all those long amazing passages of historical research. Very un-dramatic. Tarkovsky’s movie is so Art, and also I think kitschy. With those space costumes, with the sumptuous imagery.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Mark, It can be a Rumpus Poetry side project! I just ordered it!
Julie: Same here, Brian!
Mark: Just what I need: another book in the pipeline!
Aase: Julie and Brian, don’t be sad, I know nothing of s/f, just happened to read Solaris.
Brian S: Aase, Johannes–are there any plans to do another translation project?
Mark: Between my decade in Fargo and an interest in lit of arctic exploration I found the imagery compelling in ways I wonder if other temperate zone American readers might not?
Garth Graeper: In Solaris, when starting out in the lush green of the world, the movement to space is even more disorienting. The pacing is strange throughout. There is definitely something of that here. These poems unfold in time in a way few things do.
Julie: I like that the whale and hare imagery fuse together in the end, that they aren’t kept separate.
Johannes: I’m always translating Aase. Her book Dark Matter is coming out with Black Ocean next fall/winter. Joyelle and I sometimes translate parts from Upland for fun. I also want to translate her new book liknojd fauna, which features a chorus of talking chicken.
Aase: Mark, you are right! I work a lot with the feeling of cold. Believe me, I know that. Cold is beautiful. It changes the landscape.
Julie: Yes, Mark, that underworld of dark sky and snow that we northerners live with 9 months of the year.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Johannes, is there a way in which one could identify Aase’s poetry as “swedish” (beyond the fact that she is Swedish). I’m thinking of Transtromer and how his Nobel has brought a lot of people to Swedish poetry for the first time. What draws you to Swedish poetry? I’m sure this is such a general question but I do wonder about similarities…I certainly feel some and then of course there are vast differences.
Mark: The hare as a wild scampering thing in a frozen landscape. The reference to frozen lakes…
Gaby Calvocoressi: It seems like it would be an incredibly fun language to translate.
Fun as in challenging
and with so many possibilities
katrina: This book in its entirety calls to mind for me the work of Joseph Beuys… there’s something of his darkness here (and all that lard) lit with the tallow of language’s (and translation’s) scintillation.
Garth Graeper: Aase, you will soon be the most-translated-into-English contemporary Swedish poet!
Johannes: Gaby, there may well be something “swedish” about exactly the landscape and animals and the grotesque. One vein of Swedish poetry. But yes I would say Joseph Beuys inhabits a similar space and he was of course German.
Aase: Katrina, Joseph Beuys is another connection that I understood after finishing the book. I love his concept of fat. That’s how poetry works for me, it leads to other artists
Johannes: Yes, Swedish is a fun language to translate (and to write in) – the neologisms, the way foreign words come into it. It strikes me as a very “fat” language – vulnerable and physical. I also love its awkwardness.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Aase, what are you listening to and watching now?
Julie: One of my favorite “grotesque” images in this book, and it’s an image that lasts only a moment. is the skull scraping the scalp. After reading “Deer Quake,” I’m interested in your take on the human body and its traumas. Could you talk a little bit about that, Aase?
Gaby Calvocoressi: I’ve been looking at this wonderful book A History of the World in 100 Objects. There are these wonderful early fertility figures that shift as you move them. So a stone that looks like a couple and then you turn it and it’s two breasts and then you shine the light on it a different way and it’s a penis. And the figurine is no bigger than an apricot but so full of possibilities and so animated! I think of this book and Swedish like that.
katrina: Aase, I’m so happy to hear this. I’m struck by how concrete, and visceral your work is, and I was curious to find myself thinking about his work (which also varies in scale so!)… I’m really curious about the notion, Johannes, of a “fat” language; from a position of not-knowing-and-seeing-from-the-outside, I’d have thought Swedish might be very spare and taut and crystalline… so interesting our presumptions!
Gaby Calvocoressi: in my limited experience with reading that language
Aase: I was more interested in the human body earlier, because I was afraid of everything physical. And then I gave birth to kids and suddenly realized that my body was a monster, but working together with me. Nowadays I have started using my own body in other ways (riding horses, driving, things you have to do when you live on the countryside). I’m not that interested in writing about the body anymore, I use it instead.
katrina: Aase — your ideas about the body’s various utilities really resonate for me post-childhearing…
Johannes: It’s possible that all languages are potentially fat. It might have more to do with translation and poetry than with the actual language.
Julie: How has work changed now that you have overcome this obstacle? how do you use the body now? Recommendations of your current work are welcome!
Aase: And Gaby, at the moment I listen to Kate Bush (I always do) and think of big roads. Highways.
Julie: That’s interesting you mention Kate Bush, Aase. While I was reading Transfer Fat, another ambient group, Cocteau Twins came to mind for me.
Garth Graeper: In terms of the Swedish language experience in English, I feel like these poems are IN the natural world, as opposed to ABOUT the natural world, and your place and my place in that world. There seems less distance.
Brian S: I can relate to that, because the US loves its big roads even while it watches them decay. I’ve driven across the country probably a dozen times by now.
Gaby Calvocoressi: I listen to her too. Huge music where you never stop looking each other in the eye.
Garth Graeper: Johannes, did you feel any frustrations with English while translating?
Brian S: We only have a minute left, so any lurkers who want to jump in with a question, last chance!
Johannes: Garth, no, translation makes both languages more interesting.
Mark: Before times up I just want to say having author, translator and editor together made for fascinating conversation, esp. given this groups interest in the “construction” of the books we’ve read.
Gaby Calvocoressi: I know. I can’t thank you all enough. I am so inspired by the three of you. And this talk has made my whole day.
Brian S: Yes, big props to Gaby for the idea and the choice. I definitely want to do this sort of thing again.
Johannes: Thanks to everyone who participated. I appreciate your interest in the book.
katrina: Thanks so much Gaby and Brian, Johannes, Aase, Garth, and all. Really interesting stuff. Great Choice! And I can’t wait for the book!
Aase: Very interesting, thank you everyone!
Garth Graeper: Thanks, Gaby and Brian! And Rumpus-readers!
Julie: Wonderful chat! So inspiring. You made my day!
Brian S: Thanks very much for everyone who joined us. This has been a terrific conversation.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Have a wonderful day, everyone! Aase and Johannes, I can’t wait for your new poems together and apart. And Garth, thank you for Ugly Duckling!!
Mark: Now back to homework for the 54 yr old returning student : (
Brian S: For me it’s back to work on the Rumpus Poetry Anthology ebooks.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Mark, we always have Solaris. I’m reading The Return of the Native. Have a great day Everyone!
Brian S: Bye everyone! See you next month!