Jesse Lee Kercheval

The Saturday Rumpus Interview with Jesse Lee Kercheval


Jesse Lee Kercheval is the author of fifteen books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She serves as the Zona Gale Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she directs the Program in Creative Writing. Kercheval is also an active translator/editor of many outstanding collections and anthologies of South American poetry, giving focus to making available the classic and emerging poets of Uruguay to English speaking readers. Uruguay is a small country of 3.5 million people who live immersed in its literature; national poet Juana de Ibarbourou’s portrait even appears on the $1,000 peso note. In the introduction to América invertida, an upcoming bilingual anthology of emerging Uruguayan poets out from University of New Mexico Press in August, Kercheval writes: “The poetry scene in Uruguay is hyperactive. On most nights in Montevideo, there are poetry readings at multiple venues ranging from the national library to neighborhood bars.” She quotes a song by Uruguayan poet Leo Masliah, “Biromes y Servilletas” (“Ballpoint Pens and Napkins”), which pokes fun at the capital “as the place where ‘there are poets poets poets’ that ‘claim neither glories nor laurels, laurels, laurels’ and only ‘write, write, write’ on every piece of paper they can find.”

We spoke after Kercheval returned to the US from a recent presentation at Mundial Poético de Montevideo about her recent publications, her translating work, and some of the themes occupying the poems of today’s emerging Uruguayan writers.


The Rumpus: Your participation in Mundial Poético de Montevideo 2016 was to talk about your translation work of Circe Maia in a bilingual edition of Maia’s selected poems, El Puente Invisible/The Invisible Bridge, published in 2015 by Pitt Poetry Series. Can you speak a little about that event?

Jesse Lee Kercheval: Yes, I was just in Montevideo in May for the Mundial Poético de Montevideo, a wonderful weeklong festival of poetry run by a young poet Martín Barea Mattos, who is in the anthology América invertida and is the organizer of the long-running weekly poetry reading series in Montevideo, the Ronda de Poetas. This is the second time he has put together the festival, which brought Uruguayan poets together with poets from all over South America, as well as from the US and Portugal. There were readings for three or more hours every night in different museums and cultural centers around Montevideo. My treat was reading Circe Maia. She lives in Tacuarembó, which is about four hours from Montevideo, and rarely travels. I always go to visit her in her house. But we both loved the idea of reading her work together. She actually had her son drive her to Montevideo, arriving just before the reading, and then drive her home again immediately after. A lot of hours on the road for a poet who is in her eighties. She read her poems in Spanish, then I read my translations from The Invisible Bridge/ El Puente Invisible: Selected Poems of Circe Maia. It was really one of the loveliest nights of my life.

Rumpus: Specifically in translating Circe Maia’s poems, and given the fact that Maia is herself a translator of poetry into Spanish, and that she is alive and you had access to communicate with her by email and in person, I wonder if you could talk about the process of translating her poems and how much she was involved in the process.

Kercheval: I have come to know Circe well. I contacted her after reading her work and took the five-hour bus ride from Montevideo to see her in her home in Tacuarembó. Since then my whole family has been to her house and I always go to see her when I am in Uruguay. She is the loveliest, most luminous person I know. But she never wants to talk about her poetry! When I visit, she likes to sit in the garden with me and read one of my books of poems with me. Or, because I always bring her the magazines her work has appeared in, the work of other poets. But she is not really interested in reading her own work—or talking about it. Though we do talk about her life, what she is reading, her garden and children. She has less ego than any artist or writer I have ever met. She always says that the best thing about this project has been our friendship, which I find so moving just writing that brings tears to my eyes.

Knowing Circe made me even more committed to capturing her voice in English and even more committed to seeing her work become as widely known as possible. But the translation itself was not a collaborative process. I do think knowing Uruguay and Uruguayan Spanish has helped me to translate Circe’s work, but probably the greatest aid was just reading all her work and translating so many poems. I found myself settling into her voice, knowing how to make the turn in a poem work. Each additional poem came more naturally than the last.

Circe’s poetic diction is purposefully simple. She often claims certain words as her own. For instance, she’ll repeat the same verb in poem after poem without varying the language for variety’s sake. She also uses the same word in a number of forms: as a verb, noun and adjective in the same poem. Her work makes me feel greedy and restless as a poet—always wanting to use more words, to try the newest thing. And being with Circe makes me realize how restless I am as a person (and as an American). Always wanting something new.

Circe has spent eighty-three years honing her language and her view of the world. She has lived most of that in a small town far from the capitol Montevideo, which is the center of all things artistic in Uruguay. She raised six children, taught philosophy to generations of students. She survived a brutal military dictatorship that imprisoned her husband. I think her poetry teaches patience and appreciation of the natural world. It teaches us about what it takes to survive in this world. And it does it all with simple, clear language.

Rumpus: The acknowledgments page in The Invisible Bridge/ El Puente Invisible shows outstanding placement of Maia’s poems and your translations in prominent US literary journals, including the New Yorker, Tri-Quarterly, Gettysburg Review, you name it. I mean, the length of the prior publications page is equal to the table of contents. Can you talk about the reception you’ve received to Maia’s work from editors and to other Uruguayan poets you’ve been translating?

Kercheval: The response from editors to Circe Maia’s work was astounding. Usually when you send poetry to a literary magazine, you wait six months, even a year for a response. The time from submission to acceptance for Circe’s work ranged from a mere hour to two days—-and nearly every journal took four to six poems. I was especially delighted when Paul Muldoon took one of my favorite poems of Circe’s, “Hummingbirds,” for the New Yorker. I love how many people would see her work there. There has been a great response to the other work by Uruguayan poets as well. I worked hard to place the poems that are in América invertida and nearly all the poems by the twenty-two poets and translators have been published in magazines.

Rumpus: In El Puente Invisible/The Invisible Bridge, how did you select which poems from Maia’s catalog to include in this collection? I assumed they’re arranged chronologically from when they were published, but could you speak to the selection and sequencing process?

Kercheval: They are in chronological order—with a couple of exceptions. The book opens with “The Bridge” because I drew the title of the book from it and closes with “An Invitation” which is in Circe’s penultimate book (and the last one to be included in her Obra Completa) but is not the last poem, because I loved the way it closed the book by inviting the reader into the poet’s back garden, as Circe had invited me into hers.

As for selection, I tried to show her development as a poet, but the book favors Circe’s later poems, because I felt those were the strongest—the most distilled, not Circe—of her poems. I purposefully did not include poems from her book of prose poems, Destrucciones, because I felt they were too different. But I would love to do those as a separate book. I am working now on translating her new book, Dualidades, which was just published last year. A few poems and translations from that book will be out soon in a special feature of work by fifteen Uruguayan poets I edited for Drunken Boat.

Rumpus: Maia’s poem “Palabras”/“Words,” which I read both as a missive to her husband while he was in prison and to the act of composing poetry, can also be applied, I think, to translation and your bringing these poets to wider readership. Referring to the middle stanza: “But here and now while I live / I tend words—bridges to others. / Toward other eyes, the words go / they are not mine, not mine alone: / I drank them as I drink water / as I drank milk from another’s breast. / They came from other mouths / and learning them was a way / to learn to press on, to keep going.” What have you learned from tending the words that come from others’ mouths?

Kercheval: I have learned to put myself, my ego, to one side and truly experience someone else’s poetry. I think when I first started teaching, I also discovered this gift. I have often said, You never know a book until you have taught it. Now I would say, You never know a book like one you have translated.

Rumpus: In Maia’s “Vermeer part III”/“A Girl Asleep,” I noticed you translated “un cuadro” as “a picture,” whereas in other poems and in other sections of this poem you have translated Maia’s use of “cuadros” as “paintings.” How does a translator make a choice like this, when clearly there are multiple meanings for many words in each language?

Kercheval: Oh, that is always the question! And I think every translator would tell you that when they look back at a poem they have translated, they want to pencil in changes. I know I do—though sometimes I also then remember all the reasons I made that choice in the first place. I used “picture” in the six part Vermeer sequence because I thought it was clear from the context, it was a painting. Elsewhere, I used “painting” because I didn’t want the reader to think it was a photograph. Circe has a house full of paintings, and loves art, especially art by Uruguayan painters. She chose the painting on the cover of The Invisible Bridge, which is by the well known Uruguayan artist Dumas Oroño, who also happens to be the poet Tatiana Oroño’s father (the painting hangs in her living room in Montevideo). I find this connection the nearly perfect example of what a small country Uruguay really is. Everyone is connected in one way or another.

Rumpus: Maia’s poem “Leyendo en lengua extraña/Reading in a Foreign Language” makes me think of my own joy I discovered in reading texts in Spanish. As a writer, reading in English is always done with attention to craft elements and structure, syntax and word choice, and some of my love for pure storytelling has been affected by my reading as a writer. I’ve found that my original love of stories and books that made me want to be a writer, but which I’ve lost some of in the act and attention of becoming a writer in English, was rediscovered when I started reading poetry and novels in Spanish; I could stop paying attention to the craft and just enjoy the story again. I wonder if translating affects you as a reader in similar ways. Are you reading as a reader in Spanish or are you reading as a writer or translator?

Kercheval: I rediscovered my love of reading when I started reading in Spanish. My son and I had a wonderful time reading El Señor de los Anillos (Lord of the Rings) together in Spanish. He was twelve and I was twelve all over again (my age when I first read the book). To me, if I read “verde” in Spanish, it is more green! The words are not as worn out by years of reading, writing and working as a teacher of writing.

But now that I spend so much time translating, I try not to read a bilingual edition of a Spanish language poet as my first introduction to a poet’s work if I can help it. It is hard not to read across the margins and be distracted by the decisions the translator made.

Rumpus: You’ve also translated one of my favorite poets, Idea Vilariño, and her poems with your translations appeared in current issues of Denver Quarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, World Literature Today, Taos Journal of International Poetry & Thought, and Poet Lore. Can we expect some day of a published collection of those Vilariño’s translations?

Kercheval: I have a complete translation of her best-known book, Poemas de amor/ Love Poems finished and am trying to find a publisher for it. She is a major Latin American poet and it is a terrible omission that none of her books are available in English.

Rumpus: And was it different translating her poems, especially knowing how much Vilariño herself revised and tended to them, than translating the words of a living poet?

Kercheval: It was hard. I did feel her shadow!

Idea Vilariño’s had a system of stresses for her poems, something that was very important to her. I spent a lot of time studying her notes on this and thought long and hard, but could not find a way to carry her scheme into English and still have the poems sound natural, flow they way they do in Spanish. Perhaps another translator could. I always think of translating as like being a concert pianist. One person might stress Beethoven’s musicality, but another musician can always come along and stress the rhythm.

Rumpus: Do you find a difference in translating or editing the poetry of more classic Uruguayan poets like Maia and Vilariño, who were part of the Generacion del 45, to the verse of younger poets like Javier Etchevarren or the poets included in the forthcoming anthology América invertida?

Kercheval: One big difference is the amount of slang the young poets use. The poet I translated for the anthology América invertida, Agustín Lucas (who is a both professional fútbol player AND a poet), uses a lot of lunfardo, the tango slang of Uruguay and Argentina, which is constantly being updated with new meanings, and lots of references to a card game, trucho, which is well known there but unknown here. One of my jobs as editor was to go over all the translators’ work and make sure they were not making a mistake with an Uruguayan reference or word. Basically, Uruguay has a different word for every fruit, vegetable and item of clothing—and that is before you get to the lunfardo.

Rumpus: In addition to these books, you’ve also edited an anthology already published in Uruguay and forthcoming in the US, Tierra, Cielo y Agua/Earth, Sky & Water, a collection of environmental poetry from Uruguay and Argentina. What other issues do you find the emerging South American poets concerning themselves with in their verse?

Kercheval: The Uruguayans are very concerned about the environment. There have been a number of big issues, a fight against a big open pit iron mine, a new and growing problem with agricultural contamination of the river that provides the drinking water for Montevideo, so that has made its way into the poetry. Some are also concerned with their country’s history, especially the treatment of the indigenous people during the settlement of Uruguay, as well as with social injustice and what they see as a growing problem of inequality. Many of the woman poets address the issue of what it is like to be a woman in Uruguay.

Rumpus: Do you see a difference in the themes of the younger poets, born at the end of or after the crisis of the military dictatorship, from those poets who lived through those years, either in Uruguay or in exile?

Kercheval: Yes. For the past fourteen years, Frente Amplio, a coalition of left-wing and center-left parties, has run the government, making abortion, same-sex marriage, and marijuana legal. The previous Uruguayan president José Mujica was an ex-Tupamaro who escaped from Punta Carretas prison, a prison that is now a shopping mall. This progressivism is the reality for the young poets. The dictatorship is still very real to the younger poets and many participate in the annual Silent March to protest the fate of the disappeared, but, at times, they are restless with the older generation of writers and their politics. In their song “No somos latinos,” the popular band El Cuarteto de Nos pokes fun at the leftist history text Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano: “I read ‘Open Veins’ and discovered it was slop. By page four I was asleep.” This impatience is especially pronounced in some young poets’ attitudes toward Mario Benedetti, probably the most popular poet of the previous generation. The boom and bust capitalism of the post-dictatorship years have affected the younger poets, sending them from the economic crash of the early 2000s and then the rapid growth that brought new prosperity but also high living costs. Every young poet I know has more than one job trying to make ends meet.

Rumpus: On the act of translating in general, I had a recent grad student give a presentation on ten translations of Basho’s Banana Tree, each with a different title and its translator paying different attention to aspects of the poem. My student’s thesis was that a translation can never be complete. I’ve also heard Uruguayan poet friends say they don’t believe a poem can ever be translated due to its use of cultural and personal insinuation and metaphor. What do you think of these arguments and what are some of the struggles you’ve come across in translating South American poets? How have you resolved some of those struggles?

Kercheval: I just had this discussion at dinner in New Orleans with the wonderful poet Peter Cooley. He had come to a reading and Q&A I gave for students at Tulane where he teaches. He asked me to read one of Circe’s poem in Spanish, then said he gave up translating because you could never get those rhythms and sounds in English. We kept that discussion up all through dinner. I think my answer is yes—but, you can get a poem to cross that impossible distance, even if it is changed by the journey.

Then I went to Montevideo and read with Circe at the Mundial Poético. After the reading her daughter, who is a doctor in Montevideo, came up to me and said she thought some of the poems were better in English. I said, Oh no, not true! And to me it isn’t. But I think, because she was so familiar with the originals in Spanish, the English translations of some of the poems, which she had never heard, seemed fresher, startled her into hearing them anew.

I said Circe never talked about my translations but in response to an interview she did say, “I am happy because Jesse Lee has managed to create real poems in English, and not just the equivalent meaning. In a sense, it is correct to say that one feels in conversation, as you say, with poets from another language.”

But these are questions about the differences between one language and another. Some of the cultural issues you bring up are more difficult. I never want to feel I am mining another culture as a yet another form of colonialism. I think this is a huge issue for Mexican poets and US translators, for example. I haven’t found it as big a concern for the Uruguayans. They are used to reading literature in translation. They are always taught Walt Whitman and Shakespeare in high school. Uruguayan writers are always doing new translations of Shakespeare. There are strong connections between French poetry and Uruguayan poetry. They know they live in a small country and want their work to be out in the larger world, even if it is just getting a book published across the river in Argentina.

But everyone brings their knowledge of history, the world to the page with them. When I was an MFA student, fresh from growing up in the South, I remember teaching my students at the University of Iowa, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and realizing they were seeing tidy, Iowa farms in their mind’s eyes, not the ruinous shacks with dirt plowed right up to the front porch that Faulkner had in mind. I finally brought in some WPA photos of depression era cotton farms for them to see. When a Uruguayan reads poems of Circe’s that were written during the dictatorship, they read a word like “silence” to mean more than just a quiet room. And, of course. a contemporary American reader needs help to see that. I talk about that when I give readings of her work and addressed that in my introduction to The Invisible Bridge, but, in the end, neither the translator (me) nor the author (Faulkner) can really control what a reader finds in a work.

Rumpus: For example, and this may also lend to its being translated by a nonpoet, I have always been bothered by an available translation of Mario Benedetti’s first three lines of “Ésta Es Mi Casa/This Is My House,” in which Benedetti’s original reads “No cabe duda. Ésta es mi casa / aquí sucedo, aquí / me engano inmensamente. …” but the published English translation includes the second phrase as “This is my house / I occur here, I / deceive myself greatly here.” It seems clear to me that in Benedetti’s second line, he intended the repetition of “aquí / here” and not the subject “I.” But I would certainly translate a poet’s choice of repeated words assuming that was his or her intention.

Kercheval: I have sworn a sacred pact never to speak ill of other translators, so I will just say I actually wrote a poem inspired by Benedetti’s. When I was first in Uruguay, I wrote poems in Spanish (because I am always writing poems) about my experiences, then I translated them into English because it was good practice for me. They were eventually published as a book in Uruguay as Extranjera/ Stranger (Yaguarú, 2015).

And I think I addressed that very translations issue in the opening quotation from the Benedetti poem. I think you can also see I take more liberties in translating a poem of my own—inserting an explanation of the meaning of “vos”!


Mi casa en Montevideo

                                    a Mario Benedetti

No cabe duda. Ésta es mi casa
Acá existo. Acá

me engaño inmensamente
En mi casa, soy uruguaya

Sueño en español. Sueño
que hablo español rioplatense
a la perfección. A mis amigos
imaginarios los trato de vos

Esta es mi casa
fuera de mi vida real
en otro país, otra lengua

Llega la mañana y me descubre dentro
Llega la noche y me encuentra en casa

Las palabras en español se reúnen
como moscas en algunos cuartos

en otros, como las arañas,
telarañas en todos los rincones

No cabe duda. Esta es mi casa

Afuera, la gente anda con perros,
niños, maletas rodando

camina sin detenerse

Existe una playa a dos manzanas de mi casa
Es verano

Me gustaría salir
pero tengo miedo.

La puerta de mi casa se abre
a un Uruguay

donde no conozco
a nadie

y soy extranjera




My House in Montevideo

                                                after Mario Benedetti

There is no doubt. This is my house
Here I exist. Here

I lie to myself
In my house, I am Uruguayan

I dream in Spanish. Dream
I speak español rioplatense to perfection
Use vos–that most personal “you”–
with all my imaginary friends

This is my home
outside my real life
in another country, another language

Morning comes & finds me inside
Night comes & finds me the same

Spanish words gather like flies in some rooms,
in others, like spiders, webs in every corner

Do not doubt it. This is my house

Outside, people walk with dogs
children, rolling suitcases

hurry by without stopping

There is a beach two blocks away
It is summer

I’d like to go outside
but I’m afraid

The door of my house opens
to an Uruguay

where I am a stranger

& do not know
a soul

Chip Livingston is the author of two poetry collections and one collection of essays and stories. He teaches in the low-res MFA programs at Institute of American Indian Arts and Regis University. He divides his time between Denver, Santa Fe, and Montevideo. More from this author →