Q&A with William O’Daly

William O’Daly has translated eight books of Pablo Neruda’s poetry (Still Another Day, The Separate Rose, Winter Garden, The Sea and the Bells, The Yellow Heart, The Book of Questions, The Hands of Day, and World’s End) and is a cofounder of Copper Canyon Press, which published a chapbook of his poems, The Whale in the Web. He is a National Endowment of the Arts fellow and was a finalist for the 2006 Quill Award in Poetry. He recently coauthored a work of historical fiction, called This Earthly Life, with Han-ping Chin. He currently lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northern California. The Road to Isla Negra, William’s latest chapbook of his poems, launched yesterday here at Folded Word.

A peek inside THE ROAD TO ISLA NEGRA by William O'Daly, with art by Galen Garwood
A peek inside THE ROAD TO ISLA NEGRA by William O’Daly, with art by Galen Garwood

Maryka: What did you seek to develop in forming Copper Canyon Press that was unavailable through other presses?

William: From the beginning, we aspired to provide publishing opportunities for poets’ first books, as well as for the books of well-established poets who we felt were making significant contributions by sustaining and transforming the poetry we felt speaks to the mind and the heart. In later years, well after I had left Copper Canyon, the Press published poets who were frustrated with the large, increasingly corporate New York publishing houses. Our collective aesthetic was informed most directly by American Modernists such as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., and a number of others, as well as the ancient Chinese, the modern Greek poets Seferis and Elytis, Pablo Neruda, and many others. We would read to one another our favorite poems of Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, and, again, so many others. But from those poets, each cofounder crafted for himself or herself a foundation from which to intimately experience poetry, partly to avoid merely reflecting the trends of the day in our list or defaulting to publishing a survey of contemporary poetry. We sought an inclusive vision, but a distinct vision. We also wanted to build our books, as physical objects, to endure as the poetry therein would, so we applied chosen, longstanding principles of typography and design to their making. We wanted to develop a wide-ranging palette, from which the design of each book would support its individual, unique character. We would publish beautiful, lasting books; be fair-minded, honest, and considerate of our poets; keep our integrity; and ensure that the work would remain in print as long as possible.

Our mission, as originally conceived, recalls Williams’ lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Maryka: How does place and natural environment play into your composition process?

William: As a kid from Los Angeles, I found much of my spiritual identity and a release from the jabber of popular hype when hiking in the southern Sierra. I was happiest as a teenager surfing or swimming in the ocean or crossing a mountain pass, and I found my strength and endurance there, as well. I had been a chronic asthmatic since the age of 4, and I’ve since realized that, as I grew stronger, my imagination linked being in the natural world with the ability to breathe and vice versa. The concept of what constitutes a line of poetry, the first one that stuck with me, was informed by Charles Olson’s Projective Verse, in which, essentially, the line is a unit of breath. I was raised as a thinking Catholic, one who found questions a key to spiritual health, and I read Gandhi, Thoreau, Emerson, and many poets of the natural world, including the poets of ancient China. I was drawn to Neruda in large part because of his engagement with nature, and I saw myself as very much a part of nature, not separate. My four and a half years living in the Central Valley town of Modesto, CA, helped to broaden my understanding of the relationship of the earth to our better and worse uses of it, and helped to teach me how to make myself at home in a landscape, an agricultural one, I might not otherwise have sought out. Of course, all of this insinuated itself into my poetry, in conscious and less than conscious ways. How could it not?

Maryka: In a previous interview, you said you initially became involved in translation as a practice in writing poetry. What did you seek to discover from that particular exercise?

William: I sought to discover what Kenneth Rexroth strongly suggested I would discover: myself. By translating, I would learn my own language by learning how another functioned at the highest level, that is, in poetry. I would hear my own language, the music of it, in a fresh and more intimate and differentiated way. I would inhabit the sensibility and vision of master poets, their awe-inspiring facility with their own languages, and so gain scope in my own work. My vision of the human and spiritual worlds would grow. Now, when I’m translating late-career Neruda, especially in the wee hours of the night, I feel that, in some aspects, I’m hanging out with a soul mate. With Neruda, as in the words of the poet Thomas McGrath, I’m “riding the old high roads of inexhaustible light.” By translating, I liberate myself from myself, and find myself.

Maryka: What struck you in the process of translating that compelled you to focus so much of your work on translating?

William: Early on, I didn’t intend to dedicate as much of my artistic life to translation as I eventually did. And I’m sure that I wouldn’t have, had I not run across the previously untranslated late-career and posthumous poetry of Neruda. After translating the first book, which I called Still Another Day (Aún in the original), I put together a plan to translate a series of several of those untranslated works. In part, I was fascinated by them, but also, in the best sense, I began to feel an obligation. Copper Canyon, long after I, as a cofounder, left the Press, was committed to the series, though I was more inclined to think of the books as a series than was the Press. At any rate, from the mid-1980s to the very early 1990s, I published a Neruda book about every two years with Copper Canyon. It was fabulous, a true honor, to have the Press’s commitment, which also encouraged me to keep going until I had translated all of Neruda’s late work that I felt close to. Then I took a 15-year break, after which I translated the last two Nerudas in my series, The Hands of Day and World’s End, in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

Maryka: You’ve said your first responsibility in translating is to preserve the musical integrity of the poem. How do you balance maintaining both a poem’s music and its emotional quality?

William: Well, I’m not sure that, if I said translating the music was my first responsibility, I wasn’t overstating a bit. But, on the other hand, the musical integrity of a poem is part and parcel of, in some senses it’s indistinguishable from, the emotional quality, at least in poetry that is lyrical in its cast. So, more than a matter of balancing, it’s a matter of finding one in the other, a close equivalence. When I manage to retain the essence of the musical integrity, I discover the emotional quality, and where I discern how the emotions of the poem are constellated, it becomes more possible to recreate the musical sense, the rhythms and, to some extent, the cadences.

Maryka: In what ways does the voice you translate remain the original author’s, and in what ways is it your own?

William: That’s a great question, one that may be impossible to answer definitively. It depends on how we define “voice” in poetry, which is much more than the sound of a persona speaking. Without getting into definitions of voice, which is always a morass, I’d say that I work to find an equivalent modulation of tone throughout the poem and most certainly a corresponding level of language. Walking every day through the cemetery on the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene one summer, on my way to the library to translate the second book in the series, The Separate Rose (La rosa separada), I became keenly aware that Neruda would be speaking through me. That was the gift to me, and it came with a hefty responsibility.

Maryka: Similarly, how much do the poets you translate from Spanish influence your writing style and voice?

William: Neruda, far more than any other Spanish-language poet I’ve translated, has had a discernable influence on me. How much? I’m not sure how to answer that, in part because early on, after the first couple of books came out, a number of people who knew me well said that Neruda’s and my sensibilities “rhymed.” A couple actually used that word. But the influence has been quite gradual and largely unintentional. It just happened. Again, sharing with you what others have witnessed on my behalf — I’ve heard over and over again that that my poems reveal an influence of Neruda, but that I’m most certainly my own poet. I feel as though I’ve integrated that influence into my voice, and it has made, ironically, my voice more unique, more my own. By the way, that was one of Rexroth’s promises with regard to the sustained practice of translation.

Maryka: What was the first poem you fell in love with?

William: Hmmm, let’s see. I really don’t know what poem I fell in love with first, but I feel confident in saying that the first poem I fell in love with, where that love was requited, was Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Romance sonambulo”:

Verde que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verdes ramas.
El barco sobre la mar
y el caballo en la montaña.

This is the poem that, more or less, taught me how to read poetry. One doesn’t “analyze” a poem as it just lies there, “like a patient etherized upon a table,” to experience that love, though that’s one way to approach a poem. And one doesn’t have a love relationship with a poem solely by “figuring it out.” For me, to experience a poem in all its aspects, I want a sustained relationship with it. I mostly dance with it.

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