Emily Dickinson’s a Pisser: Talking to Poet-Translator Paul Legault

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09/04/2012 10:40 AM |

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Paul Legault is the co-founder of the translation press Telephone Books and the author of three books of poetry: The Madeleine Poems (Omnidawn, 2010), The Other Poems (Fence, 2011), and The Emily Dickinson Reader, an “English-to-English translation” of her poems that McSweeney’s released last month—and which all summer has been passed around our office by giggling editors, like how teenagers used to share pornography. (Full disclosure: Legault dates a member of our staff.) The book launch is tomorrow evening at powerHouse.

You live in Brooklyn, right?
I live in Crown Heights, moved to Brooklyn three years ago after grad school, started working at the Academy of American Poets when I got here, launched a small Brooklyn press focused on radical translation called Telephone Books. And I like it here.

Why Emily Dickinson?
For any American poet, Emily Dickinson is sort of a monolith. There’s no way around/over/under—you have to go through it. To me, translating Dickinson seemed as inevitable as a contemporary musician covering Bob Dylan. Because her ideas are distinctly modern. And though the hymnal form’s a little dated, Dickinson understood how time works, i.e. #326:

Heaven is so 1861.

Or, as she writes in #379:

I wish I were simpler. I also wish I were more edible.

Why Dickinson? I guess she was asking for it.

In your opinion, was Emily Dickinson as funny as you make her?
It depends on your sense of humor. If you like extremely dry comedy—like a taxidermic clown left out in the sun—then something like #876:

My superpower is the ability to exist

—is a funny sentiment.

Dickinson’s jokes get serious pretty quickly. Like human existence: “God’s greatest joke.” I guess that joke’s actually kind of sad. Or that it’s a joke is. Sadness is sort of Emily Dickinson’s punchline.

How did you go about structuring the book—picking the order of the Emily Dickinson poems to “translate,” and the flow of your translations?
I did it chronologically: doled out the same way Time did it. One leads to the next. So the first poem is the first poem she ever wrote, and, more poignantly, the last is the last. I like that she had a life. And, I wanted the book to function like a depraved biography or self-help book—the way she outlines her life in #578:

How to spend a typical day in the life of Emily Dickinson:
1. Lie around.
2. Look out the window.
3. Compare things to Sue.
4. Die a little inside.