In the Service of the Figure (II)

In the Service of the Figure: Marcella Durand on translating Michèle Métail (Part 2)

An Interview by Janet Lee

I definitely believe French poetry is a “hidden spring” that has nourished and influenced so much of the poetry I find interesting and important personally. So I am inspired by French and Francophone poets directly but also by French and Francophone poetics as inflected and echoed through American poets like John Ashbery, Will Alexander, Bernadette Mayer, and many others.

The first half of my interview with Marcella Durand on September 30th focuses on the particular joys, intrigues, and difficulties of translating Michèle Métail’s Earth’s Horizons (a sort of geological epic poem with an exacting character constraint). It was published on Hopscotch Translation on October 19 and can still be read HERE

This is the second half of that conversation. We turn to Marcella’s work as a translator and poet in a more comprehensive way: what she’s exploring in her own poetry, and where her poetry has been working to break down the divisions between human/nature.

Stéphane Mallarmé au châle, 1895 (Paul Nadar)
Cecilia Vicuña at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, 2014 (Wikimedia, CC BY 4.0)


Janet: Which books of Michèle Métail’s are you translating now?

Marcella: I’m working on two books: Toponym: Berlin, a much longer book based in Berlin with accompanying images. It’s very much about the city and not so much about the landscape, so it’s a bit challenging as I don’t know Berlin. The other book is titled 64 poèmes du ciel et de la terre (les métriques paysagères) I (64 Poems of the Sky and Earth); it’s based on the I Ching, and the landscape of central France. That landscape is actually very familiar to me because I have family there and visited often as a child, so I have more of an emotional connection to this work.

Janet: You mentioned earlier that you were able to visit Métail in France. What was that visit like?

Marcella: Two and a half years ago, I was able to visit Michèle at her home, and it was a transcendental experience. Her house was one of the most complex places I’ve ever been in, a creative experience of an artist’s home, yet like a dream. From the outside, it is a fairly nondescript gray house, but as soon as we walked in, I knew it was going to be something special. Every room is like an art piece, so much art and music, a lot of performance spaces, and these sorts of rooms within rooms, windows opening to other windows. There were these spiraling gardens outside that were completely enclosed, secret. It was not something you’d see in America—it was built in a way that no house in America would be built. She told us that its architecture is very particular to the area, and then she showed us a secret room beneath the garden where members of the Resistance had hidden, and before that, the Huguenots, fleeing the Catholics.

Janet: You have incredible creative relationships with several French poets—do you consider your poetry formatively French or American or something else entirely? 

Marcella: I definitely believe French poetry is a “hidden spring” that has nourished and influenced so much of the poetry I find interesting and important personally. So I am inspired by French and Francophone poets directly but also by French and Francophone poetics as inflected and echoed through American poets like John Ashbery, Will Alexander, Bernadette Mayer, and many others.

I collaborated with Tina Darragh using the work of Francis Ponge, specifically, The Making of the Pré, resulting in our book, Deep Eco Pre. My translator and dear friend Olivier Brossard has been an incredibly wonderful welcoming presence to French poetry—without him, my connections would not be nearly as sustainable. He keeps it fresh for me! 

Janet: How has working with constrained writing à la Métail influenced how you write poetry? 

Marcella: After completing Earth’s Horizons, I delved into the alexandrine, writing an 80-page continuous alexandrine in English. I was intrigued by definitions that the alexandrine has “never worked” in English (a former edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics actually says this), so decided to take on the challenge! The result was a chapbook, beautifully edited and published by Ann Stephenson at Tent Editions, Rays of the Shadow (although I’m still not entirely sure I definitively proved the alexandrine could “work” in English). In a more recent project, A Winter Triangle, I somewhat chronicle an effort to develop a poetic form (or forms) to accommodate climate change. I very much believe that we do not have the language currently to convey all that we are learning about climate change, ecology, and our spaces as humans within our environment, and believe poetry is a first space to experiment with developing that language in a creative and wild way. A Winter Triangle is inspired by Mallarmé looking to the infinity of stars, and further explores what the poet can do with shaping that into creative form. Métail’s work inspired the sections in AWT on the septentrional, in which I experiment with 7-syllable lines facing north. I don’t quite develop a finished form of the septentrional; instead, it’s a slightly melancholy and messy/messing-around sketch of my attempts to do so—very open. Like John Ashbery once wrote, “My tetrahedron is open to the night.”

Janet: What are you working on right now?

Marcella: Well, I tend to have a few projects going on at once… One of my books, To husband is to tender, just came out. This book is a little different for me in that it focuses on potential and personal relations. I started writing it during the years-of-the-Orange-One, and on how awful hyper-performed masculinity felt during that time, including for men I loved. My mother-in-law also died unexpectedly around this time, and just seeing men, good men, struggle with the issues of masculinity and its apparent destructiveness… I wanted to write into those roles, and try to offer some alternative, loving, tender ways of relationships and through the grief of enforced oppositional binaries within them.

Now I’m working on—and this all is raw, I’m really in the middle of it—I’ve started to write more about my family, which I’d always avoided before because I really love experimental and abstract poetry… and I love writing into science and ecology and all the language associated with that, so this is also a little different for me. But things have been coming up about my French grandfather’s twin brother, who died mysteriously during World War II. He’d been registered by the government as a Resistance hero, but he might also have been a collaborator. It’s very unclear, but somehow it’s affected the family through generations. It’s still very much in a structure stage, trying to structure the twin/twin identity, and the landscapes… I’m still playing around with it, and with these dream-like memories that my father tells me of being in France that are just as abstract as Michèle Métail’s landscapes, these strange spaces between being French and American, and the language of that…

And then I’ve been writing a lot of ecologically oriented poetry for specific projects—I just participated in a performance that was curated by Cecilia Vicuña called Insectageddon, and we were reading and performing and writing poems about insects and their loss and relationship to them and their role in the ecosystem. It was fun to do this in a public space—to engage people walking by with poems about and [addressed] to insects, which I’ve been trying to write being somehow respectful and connective, acknowledging the other being and what humans are doing to that other being—I’m just trying to find non-extractive, non-colonialist ways to write about what’s nonhuman, I mean, even the term “nonhuman” is problematic. Finding words for that which exists outside your human self is a challenge.

And I’ve been involved with this fight to save my local park. It’s really horrific and it’s just awful and heartbreaking. The poet Eileen Myles has been involved with it too… and we’ve been spending way too much time on this, like, just yesterday Eileen was down in City Hall Park chained to a tree to protest the destruction of this park. [The proposed destruction] is New York City capitalism/real estate at its worst. I’m feeling completely disillusioned with politics at this point… politicians across the spectrum. It literally keeps me up at night. Anyway, in an effort to offset the effects of the entire park being bulldozed—all 56 acres of it with 80-year-old oak trees and American elms and a thriving ecosystem—I’ve planted a pollinator garden on my six-by-four-foot concrete balcony. I’ve learned that the same bees visit every day. There’s one in particular who’s been showing up every day to feed at my anise hyssop plant. I have way too many photos of this bee. I write poems to it. From what I understand, every little bit of habitat, even just a little pot of pollinator-friendly plants in your windowsill, is better than nothing, because there’s been so much habitat removed.

Janet: Human relationships with wild little things and insects seem to be constrained to children’s literature for the most part in America. Yet I’m infinitely more empathetic to them as an adult than I was as a child. There was a daddy long legs living in my window this summer, and I would contemplate him, his vulnerability—younger me would have killed him… humans so easily destroy, while little things like him are clinging to the little they have.

Marcella: It’s so painful to be putting in that work to become a more sensitive human being and more sensitive to our environment, to be writing these poems thinking that you’re initiating change, only to realize how little any of this matters to politicians or people in business. There’s an incredible gulf, almost as if within humanity there’s two completely different species… there are all these articles [about the importance of conservation], but do our politicians even read any of them? About living soil and pollinators and flood control and marshlands? It’s like they don’t even… read.

Janet: I’d loved how you described the region around Marseille, how utterly unique it is, how the colors seem to be from a sort of prehistoric time… the land itself provides a lot of provocative constraints if one is to write site-specific poetry. But now I’m thinking: what sort of “constraint” does  New York City impose?

Marcella: That is an incredibly complicated question for me. The alexandrine I mention above is also the effort to find a line that accommodates the pain, difficulty, and joy of living in such a corrupt, colonialist, rapacious, noisy, densely urban, utopian/dystopian place as New York—I thought about the 12 syllables of the alexandrine as a longer, more sonically neutral line that could hold the cadences of many various immigrant voices (I myself have some trouble identifying the metrics of British-inflected English, being raised in a bilingual household) and the endless construction noise of a city perennially destroying itself. Then of course, it is an ocean city, surrounded by water, but with its streams buried and its nature brutally and continuously knocked back by the overwhelming real estate industry and all of its horrible corollary industries. It’s a very defined city, with so much artificially manufactured space, and yet, within that violently maintained ecology, there is a beautiful pushback of community and nature together. Environmental justice is a live wire here—many intersections of human/nature/human occurring daily together, and I see the best of humans here too, the generosity of neighbor to neighbor and stranger to stranger. I try to write into that and see it as essential that we figure out how to imagine or “say” the possibility of being ecological within this deeply “human” space.

Janet: There’s definitely a lot of know-how that had been passed down through the centuries on both sides of the ocean on how to live off of little, to not waste, but in this new world of excess and abundance, or imagined abundance, that knowledge lay dormant. But it’s there. Which of the books that you’ve read have been especially ecologically provocative?

Marcella: Most recently, I read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer—I would say this book has been life-changing. It’s given me an idea of how humans might fit into an ecological niche again, and not have to be these relentless bringers of destruction and horror to the environment. I also recently attended a talk by the wildlife biologist Cristina Eisenberg, who discussed TEK, or traditional ecological knowledge, and how it is increasingly being considered in any study of ecology. Changes in the Land was an excellent introduction for me in contrasting the indigenous relationship to land to the transactional colonial relationship to land, and how completely incompatible those two systems were—the latter was literally forced over the former. The Country and The City by Raymond Williams is a foundational text that helped me understand the process of enclosure, the prospect (a concept that I wrote a whole book about) and the city as site of acquisition.

Janet: I was obsessed with Samuel Taylor Coleridge as an undergrad, not because he was so romantic, but because he would sit in on science lectures in search of poetic material, and he drew real inspiration from his contemporaries there. I see something similar in contemporary French poet Laura Vazquez’s work. I certainly see it in Earth’s Horizons. At the risk of stretching what translation is, is this translating-science something that you are interested in exploring (or have explored?) in your poetry?

Marcella: Absolutely. I am fascinated by science and feel I have the amateur’s privilege to be creative with it, to mess around with exciting new scientific concepts, trying out different ways to write about them, juxtapose them, make the leaps between ideas that scientists are more obliged to be sober and serious about. As a poet, I can play more, but play in a serious way, of course! Eileen Myles read a poem at that rally to save East River Park that mentioned something about mushrooms being the heart of trees, and this poem was written before the scientific books came out about how important mushrooms are to tree health—the poet sometimes knows long before the official scientific “discovery.” 

Janet: Have you stumbled on Irish translator Michael Cronin’s Eco-Translation? Or have you contemplated this yourself, as a translator, how translation might “knowingly engage with the challenges of human-induced climate change?”

Marcella: I have not read that, but it sounds interesting and I will check it out! As a translator specifically of a work exploring geological transformation shading into botanical transformation and into human history, climate change—including wildfires—was certainly in my mind. And when I visited Marseille and Provence we did witness a quickly spreading wildfire and seaplanes racing in from the Mediterranean to dump gallons of seawater on these wildfires. I think that is a large part of Métail’s interest for me—her concept of being so intricately involved in a creative way with a particular place, such as Marseille, or Berlin, or la France profonde. That, if we are so creatively aware of where we are at the moment, we can’t be so cavalier about destroying it. Does that come across in English? I’m not sure, but I did try to retain the site-specific geological terms—I didn’t want to translate it into American. I guess I would like American readers to know the possibility of writing such an intensely site-specific piece, and consequently, being connected to where they are at the moment.

Janet Lee is a translator and editor living in Brooklyn. Her clients include Éditions Robert Laffont, Rizzoli Publications, and The French Publishers’ Agency. Her translations have been featured at Festival des Cinq Continents and US&THEM reading series, and she is the organizer of Another Way to Say reading series in translation. She is currently translating Joséphine by Jean Rolin and Vingt minutes de silence by Hélène Bessette. [Photo: Aysel Khrustina]

Marcella Durand is the author of To husband is to tender, Black Square Editions, 2021; The Prospect, Delete Press, 2020; Area, Belladonna*, 2008; and Traffic & Weather, Futurepoem, 2008. She is the 2021 recipient of the C.D. Wright Award in Poetry from the Foundation of Contemporary Art. Earth’s Horizons, her translation of Michèle Métail’s book-length poem, Les horizons du sol, was published by Black Square Editions in 2020. [Photo: Andrew Zawacki]

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, October 26, 2021

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