The Burden of Translation: Talking with Leonora Simonovis
The first time I heard Leonora Simonovis read, in June of 2020, at Antioch University of Los Angeles, I was holding my breath in silent awe. I was undone by the language, a mixture of Spanish and English, both tender and powerful. The reading completely disarmed me; I knew I’d be reading Simonovis’s poetry for the rest of my life.
Many of the poems Simonovis read that afternoon appear in her debut collection, Study of the Raft, winner of the 2021 Colorado Prize for Poetry. It’s an important and critically acclaimed work that intersects themes of oppression, isolation, and camaraderie among women and people of color.
A bilingual poet who grew up near Caracas, Venezuela, Simonovis currently lives in San Diego, California where she teaches Latin American literature and creative writing at the University of San Diego. She is a VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) fellow, has an MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a contributing editor for Drizzle Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Gargoyle Magazine, Diode Poetry Journal, The Rumpus, Arkansas International, Inverted Syntax, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others.
Despite its heavy themes, Study of the Raft is a book of hope and of togetherness, regardless of boundaries. Simonovis skillfully uses poetic craft to make this message digestible. When we spoke via Zoom, Simonovis had just heard about the Colorado Prize for Poetry award. We talked about the unexpected elation that came with winning this national award, her family—especially her mother—and life as an exile from Venezuela.
The Rumpus: Study of the Raft won the 2021 Colorado Prize for Poetry, selected by Sherwin Bitsui. Well done!
Leonora Simonovis: Thank you! I never expected to win and thought the process of publication would take years. All of a sudden, I got a phone call telling me I won. I actually asked the person, “Are you sure it’s me?”
Rumpus: The cover of the book has a picture of warped, separate planks that are roughly hewn together. In one poem, “Further Study of the Raft,” you write: “Hope cannot hold the logs together.” What exactly is the raft?
Simonovis: The raft is an anchor, or what holds everything and everyone together. I live in San Diego, so many people here think of the border as the US/Mexico border. But for me, the border looks different—I had to cross an ocean to come here—and oceanic borders are real. People cross them on these rafts all the time. People die on these rafts. I wanted to call attention to the fact that these dividing lines we create go beyond physical barriers. They are constructed around the idea of home and belonging: That, over there, is your land. This is ours. Borders are there to separate.
Rumpus: Your book is divided into three sections: “Uno,” “Dos,” and “Tres.” What is the significance of this separation?
Simonovis: When we were kids, before racing or doing something that we were a bit reluctant to do, we would say “Uno, dos, y tres” to give ourselves the push we needed. In writing this book, I had so many doubts and questions about my own work, the process of writing, whether I should be writing or not. Saying those words, and writing them down, making them a part of the book, was a way to give myself the courage to just go for it, finish the manuscript, and submit it.
Rumpus: Does your family’s immigration story inform the intersectionality of this book?
Simonovis: Yes, it does. I was born in Caracas, Venezuela—my whole family is from there—and I spent my childhood there. My family moved to Connecticut when I was about to start middle school, because my father had the opportunity to be a postdoctoral student at Yale. Because he wasn’t being paid, our family lived well below the poverty level, and yet it was still the best time of my life. I attended a school that had a predominantly Black student population—I was one of maybe three Latinas—where I felt welcomed, part of the community. I participated in student activities like choir and drama. It was a happy time for me. After about three and a half years, my father decided we were all moving back to Venezuela. I didn’t want to go back, and neither did my brothers, but we did. I always had the mindset that one day I would come back [to the United States] because I no longer felt at home in Venezuela.
Rumpus: When did you move back to the United States?
Simonovis: When I was twenty-five, after I had saved up enough money. I went to Mexico City with a friend, and while I was there, I met a professor from Washington University, in St. Louis. Her department was offering scholarships for their PhD program. She encouraged me to apply, so I did. I was accepted, and moved to the US at the same time Venezuela was turning. The country’s oil strikes, plus the political climate, ignited volatile protests, demonstrations, arrests. There were terrible gas shortages. The day before I left, my dad and brother waited in line at a gas station for seven hours just to buy enough gas to take me to the airport the next day. In many ways, I chose the right time to leave.
Rumpus: But maybe also the hardest time to leave?
Rumpus: When did you start writing poetry?
Simonovis: I started writing in elementary school, but it was mostly kid stuff. The first poetry book I ever read was The Cricket Sings by Federico García Lorca, a book of verse for children. It was a gift from my mom and I still have it—it’s old and stained now. We also had another book by Aquiles Nazoa with funny poems about chickens and other animals. My mom learned these poems by heart, and recited them from memory. I loved listening to her voice as she did this. I could hear my mom’s voice as I looked at the pictures. I’d repeat lines, aloud or in my head. My experience with poetry was more than reading. It involved all my senses: touching, looking, and listening. My mom was a big part of this.
Rumpus: You dedicate Study of the Raft to your mom: “Para mi mamá, por todo.” She’s also an important figure within its pages, isn’t she?
Simonovis: She is. My mom was a faithful reader of my poems. She always supported me. Like all moms, she knew things about me before I did. She called me a poet before I called myself one. Unfortunately—she was very sick for a long time—she passed away two weeks before I found out the book was going to be published.
Rumpus: I’m so sorry.
Simonovis: Thank you. My mom was a special person. She carried the memories of her family and loved to tell the stories.
Rumpus: Two poems, “Still Life with Baby” and “Water Rituals,” have overlapping themes of mother/daughter relationships, domesticity, death, and alienation. Can you talk about this?
Simonovis: My mom’s family had a lot of secrets and she was expected to keep them. Once I was old enough to ask, my mom realized she couldn’t keep all these secrets if she wanted a truthful relationship with me. I wrote “Still Life with Baby” after she told me the story of her mother, my grandmother, losing a child when she was seven months pregnant. My grandma kept the baby—a fetus—perfectly preserved in a jar in a cupboard. She couldn’t bring herself to bury him. My mother was a child, and it was terrifying for her to open the closet door, to get sheets or something, and there was this perfectly formed baby in a jar. Finally, someone in the family convinced my grandmother to give the baby a proper burial, and she did. The memory lingered. I thought, How can I write about that? I hadn’t seen any of it, but I tried to imagine what the cupboard looked like, and what it felt like to open the door. After my mother read the poem, she said, “Thank you. Now I feel seen.” She had been carrying these secrets for years, and they weighed on her.
Rumpus: What an honor.
Simonovis: It was, and in a way this brought us closer together. On the other hand, “Water Rituals” is about my great-grandmother, who didn’t fit the social norms of her day. She had a strong personality and a bit of a temper. She took lovers. She worked as a nurse and had a son, a baby boy, out of wedlock. She worked odd hours and left him in the care of someone else when he was very sick, and he died.
When my great-grandmother was dying, I helped take care of her. At some point, she started seeing this child coming to her, and asked me, “Can you see him? Can you see him?” I was a teenager at the time, so I didn’t know what was going on. I asked my mom about it, and she told me the whole story of this child. Apparently, not even my aunts had known about his existence. My great-grandmother never talked about it. I think it was a source of shame. First of all, she was a nurse, but she couldn’t save her own child. Also, this baby was the son of a man who was not her husband. This wasn’t acceptable in her generation.
Rumpus: One of my favorite poems in this collection is “Father Lengua,” in which the speaker’s father, a deep-thinking, educated man, tries to explain how to pronounce his name: “Shah-vee-air, he says / —over and over— / It’s Basque. But / they think / Basque is a painter. // When I buy him / coffee, I take the cup from / the barista’s hand and write / his name as many times / as it takes for all to see.”
When I read this, I felt the burden of translation on you. I know your parents weren’t illiterate, but were you expected to be a bridge?
Simonovis: When we first arrived in the US, I really felt that burden of translation that you’re talking about. My siblings and I learned English so quickly! We were immersed because of school. My dad, on the other hand, had to learn as an adult. My parents really wanted to learn to speak English fluently. They asked my brothers and me to speak English at home, but we didn’t want to. We spoke English at school, had ESL classes, and everyone at school spoke English. But home was our refuge! We could relax there, speak Spanish as a family, and be ourselves. I realized, much later, that it was the language of our relationship. We had established a relationship with our parents in one language, so switching to another language would have changed that relationship. It felt awkward.
Rumpus: How does poetry help you to cross those boundaries?
Simonovis: With poetry, I don’t have to choose one language or the other. When you’re writing, you’re creating a different language. Poets create their own language, with a different syntax, different musicality, unique ways of putting images together. It’s not binary. There’s no left or right, backward or forward, this or that, either, or. You just write and see what happens. Everything intersects. This is why I love poetry so much.
Rumpus: One of your poems is called, “Still Life in Exile.” Do you consider yourself an exile, or is this a word to describe your separation from family?
Simonovis: I consider myself an exile because I don’t get to return to Venezuela. On one hand, I decided to leave, and I knew I might not be coming back, because of how things were turning out politically and socially.
Rumpus: The poem has a strong beginning: “Papá calls again: / your cousin died in jail / a policeman came last night / says I’m on the list. // A grocery list on my night table. // I left a country where politicians / play in red berets while people / die for a pair of shoes.” Were there threats to your family from the oppressive government?
Simonovis: One of my family members was arrested and kept as a political prisoner for fifteen years. Because we had the same last name, my family started getting noticed. I went back home twice, to visit my family, and was interrogated at the airport. They asked me, “Do you know this person? Do you know he’s in jail for what he did?” Even my father has been questioned, interrogated, because of his work as a doctor. Once, after treating a patient, he was pulled in for questioning. They accused him of helping the opposition because the patient was supposedly from the opposition. My father has always treated his patients with compassion. It’s about their health and well-being, not their political views.
Rumpus: Searching for safety recurs in this collection, often overlapped by the abuse of power. “The Holy Family” gives the reader a close-up of a nun who abuses her power, as a teacher and as a representative of the church: “The Sister… tells me / how many of the Ten / Commandments I’ve / broken. I’ve never been / good with numbers… I sit / on my bed, shaking.” Was this written from a memory of one specific nun at your Catholic school in Venezuela? Or does she bear the weight of every religious figure?
Simonovis: She kind of bears the weight for everyone. There was one nun at that school who would pull the kids’ ears until they were red. She would just pull them and pull them. It was horrible! All of those nuns had a way of using punishment as pedagogy. Most of the poems I write about religion are really about the abuse of power, bestowed upon these people by the church.
Rumpus: You also address corruption in the Venezuelan government. The poem “Gospel, After OneChot’s ‘Rotten Town’” focuses on the violence in Venezuela at that time: “mothers, fathers, brothers, / sisters, sons and daughters, / bodies piling at the morgue, / They live in a Rotten city / untagged, unclaimed, / unbagged and bound / to a trigger. Murder / They live in a Rotten city / as prayer and redemption.”
What inspired this?
Simonovis: I was definitely inspired by OneChot’s “Rotten Town” video. It showed the violence that was happening in Venezuela, beginning with children playing in the barrios, in the mountains surrounding Caracas. It’s disturbing. In the first scene, one of the kids dies from a stray bullet. From there, [the video] gets darker. The government tried to censor the video, but it went viral. The singer, OneChot, was shot, maybe a couple of years after the video’s release. He survived, but he was in ICU for months. People who lived outside of Venezuela thought, “Wow, how ironic that his song was about all this violence and he became a victim of that violence.” But Venezuelans knew everything he was singing about. It’s why many of us left. So, this poem was me trying to have a conversation with that video. I think that the intention behind the poem is to say, This is our reality right now. How do we talk about it? How do we engage with it? How did I navigate the city and the violence I grew up in?
Rumpus: You have a way of taking memory, history, and even traumatic violence, and turning it into something digestible for the reader. Each poem is haunting, but beautiful. Language is a powerful player on the page. What is your process like?
Simonovis: On a perfect day, I would get to do a half hour of free writing, where I work on new things. Then, take a break. Later, I would come back to revise for two to three hours. That’s my favorite part of the process. Writing can be hard, but revising is like building a house. You have all these parts, and begin to wonder, How do I design this to serve the people who are going to live there? Or, How does the design serve the house? What does this house want to be? When I revise I always ask myself, What does this poem want to be, where does it want to go? Do I need to write more? Write less? What’s working, what isn’t? At times, when revising the manuscript, I’d feel stuck, so I’d just sit in front of a poem and say, “Talk to me. Please say something.” The process, for me, is very messy, not straightforward. One day, I might write a line for a poem, put it away, and maybe forget about it for three months. Once in a while, a poem will come to me whole and will need very little editing.
Rumpus: Were any of the poems in this collection like that?
Simonovis: “I’ve Been Prey for Most of My Life” was like that. It came to me in one sitting. So, I guess going back to my ideal day, I would use the morning to write and revise, and then the afternoon to read, with many breaks in between, walks, and maybe a short trip to the ocean.
Photograph of Leonora Simonovis by @meterphoto.