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.
When did the photos—or rather, the repetition of the same photo, of a poker-faced Emily Dickinson with a Kuleshovian variety of captions—become a part of the book? How central to the conception are they?
They’re central in the sense that they’re in the center of the book, Easter-egged throughout. But they actually came last—like the indexes—as a collaborative bonus of working with the brilliant editors at McSweeney’s.
That said, it was her austere, indecipherable gaze that held me throughout the project. As Dickinson put it:
1774. Some people look like they want to beat you to death with their face.
And those are the most interesting kinds of people.
With these poems, it seems like you're dealing with time, and an individual sensibility, something similar to what Telephone journal, which you edit, does with language, by publishing a number of different, intentionally eclectic translations of the same poems by foreign authors. Is meaning entirely malleable as the text changes hands among eras, languages and even individual readers? In your view, is translation necessarily entirely subjective?
‘Tis a leading question, but: Yes.
Despite my interest in literary translation—from one language to another—I’m much more interested in the term as applied to forms of ‘translation’ between media. It means something different when applied by multimedia artists in general, crossing platforms, feeding all these original texts into the new aesthetic: translation as a means of generating an original work.
Though The Emily Dickinson Reader is presented as a humor book, I also wanted to engage/invite a new translation of sorts—one that’s simultaneously reverent of the source, and defiant; one that uses the original (subjectively) as a starting point, not as the (objective) end-goal.
That said, I also wanted to make lazy high school students’ lives easier. I like lazy high school students. I was one. And they are / will be the future, i.e.:
638. The future does what it wants.