A conversation with Eduardo Chirinos and Gary Racz

Jeremy Flynn
Culture Critic

Last week, Saint Vincent was fortunate enough to have the Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos and his translator Gary Racz come to campus to do a bilingual reading from Chirinos’ latest book of poetry, “The Smoke of Distant Fires.” The two were kind enough to find some time during their visit to sit for a brief conversation about the book, poetry, poets and the art of translation.
Q: I really enjoyed your reading yesterday, and I found you two a sort of comic duo. How did you two meet?
Racz: I had translated a friend of Eduardo’s, Jose Antonio Masotti, another Peruvian at Princeton, when we were graduate students, and then I taught as an adjunct at Rutgers. While I was teaching, Eduardo was doing doctoral work, and that’s where we met. We got together, he showed me his poetry and that’s how we got started. That was 16 years ago.
Chirinos: I have a lot of friends at Rutgers University and Princeton University and they told me we have a friend and he’s a translator and he’s taller than you! (laughs)
Q: Let’s get into the book, “The Smoke of Distant Fires.” I really enjoyed that the poems were not punctuated, and all in lower case. It gives the poems a great sense of forward motion.
Racz: Hypotactic.
Q: Exactly. How should the reader approach “hypotactic” lines?
Chirinos: It’s a very good question, because the poem is building without commas, without periods, without colons, and the idea of that is inviting the reader to become an author, because you must create your own in every poem.
Racz: You can tell by the way I read it in English, I transform it and I start to read it in a staccato manner, and I’m not quite sure where one thought ends, where one begins, where one speaker or voice comes in, and as Eduardo said, the reader becomes an active agent in the poem’s changes.
Chirinos: On the other hand, the book has plenty of cultural references, and it can be a little off-putting and a little intimidating. But I consider that the poem is not the arriving of the tradition, but the poem is the begging of a tradition.
Racz: In fact, we tried not to annotate it. We had the choice in the translation, and we decided not to do it. This kind of poetry was itself a starting point, a point of departure.
Q: It’s like when Williams said that a poet thinks with his poems. These poems are showing a new thought process.
Racz: Who said that?
Q: Williams. It’s one of my favorite quotes of his, one that Robert Creeley cites quite a bit.
Q: I read that Eduardo believes all of his books of poems come together to form one continuous poem. Is that accurate?
Racz: I think you are referring to a point that was made in the introduction by Daniel Sharpiro, which is interesting because we weren’t that convinced that it was entirely the case.
Chirinos: According to me, but it’s only my opinion, but every books is a solitary planet in the same system–because every book is different than the other one. “The Smoke of Distant Fires” is written in Missoula, and written in Missoula is very different than, for example, “The ABC’s of Water.” And they are very different, but they are all in the same planetary system.
Q: As you said, Eduardo, there are a lot of cultural references in the book, many of which are to saints—Teresa of Avila, for instance. What is the role of religion in the book?
Chirinos: The word “religion.” When I was in school the priests explained to me the word “religion” is from “religare,” which means to establish contact with god. But it is a false etymology. The real sense of it is “relegare.”
Q: To relegate, yes?
Racz: To move away.
Chirinos: Because the gods, the god and the goddess, live in a different space than us and it is very important to separate these two different universes. The only way we make contact with them is through the ritual. Maybe the point of poetry in general is to make a ritual, despite not being a religious person.
Q: Gary, when translating Eduardo’s works, how do you as a translator deal with preserving the poet’s essence?
Racz: Let me first say that I think that one of the commentaries that runs through from the critics is that Eduardo has a particularly wry voice, and I don’t think it’s particularly hard to get in English. In fact, the poems that I prefer to read are not the ones that Eduardo prefers to read, and I think that’s because the more emotive poems come out in Spanish and the more wry ones come out in English. It may be my fault in some ways, but the Spanish poem about his father, the diction, is a little bit maudlin in English, but for Eduardo it has resonance.
Chirinos: One of the most interesting comments by a reviewer was that the poems were reading as if the poems were originally written in English.
Racz: That’s something interesting in the Metamorphosis review by David Ball. It said that it clearly reads in English but it clearly isn’t from “here.” It bridges the divide and it’s one of the inevitabilities of translation, if you don’t completely domesticate it or assimilate it.
Q: Last night you mentioned being influenced by Dante when you were young. Who were some other poets who you found meaningful at an early age?
Chirinos: In my first book there is a kind of “finger print file” of my influences, but I prefer to talk about friendship not influence, because you read the poem and you make a kind of friendship with the poem, you feel approached, and I feel a lot of approach with Caesar Valeho, for example. But Neruda, everyone read Neruda, and even now I prefer Valeho, or Dante. Five years later I went to Spain with a fellowship, and I discovered the big Spanish poetry and many other poets that I can’t read in Peru, because Peru was a very poor country and had very poor libraries. In Spain I discovered the poetry of Constantine Cavafy and Fernando Pesoa, and the poet Luis Cernuda of the Generation of 27’ in Spain. It opened up to me a lot of possibilities, and helped me to discover myself.
Q: Who are some contemporary poets you’re excited about?
Chirinos: Here in America? I recently translated Mark Strand into Spanish. You know, to translate poems into your language is the best way to understand them. A very strange poet, a character, is the Philippino poet Jose Garcia Villa. He was a close friend of Auden and Cummings. He was well known as the “Poet of the Comma,” because in two or three of his books, every word has a comma. According to him we need to delight in every word in the same way, to treat every word as an equal on the “canvass.”

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