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An Interview with Maria Cabrera

By Lawrence Schimel


Catalan writer Maria Cabrera’s poems appear in the April 2017 issue: You Will Not Be Born Again: Catalan Literature Now. Join Words Without Borders for an evening of Catalan poetry with Maria, translator Mary Ann Newman, and writer and translator Adrian Nathan West this Wednesday, April 19 in Brooklyn, New York.

Lawrence Schimel (LS): This is your first time being translated into English; how has the experience been for you? Have you been translated into other languages before? (By yourself or other people?) Were you in contact with the translator during the process?

Maria Cabrera (MC): The experience has been very interesting and enriching. I have translated a few of my own poems into Castilian Spanish myself, but the sensation has been different now, because the author of the translation is someone else and because in this case the language is clearly foreign, it is not a fundamental part of myself—as Catalan is and, to a lesser degree, Castilian. In this case, the work was done by another person who has “taken possession” of my verses, of their cadences, their images, and their syntax, and who has brought them to another language that is not my own, as if changing the course of a river, leading it along other channels, drawing new meandering trajectories. I wasn’t in touch with Mary Ann Newman during her translation process, and it has been very impressive to see the result of her efforts completely finished and shining: Mary Ann knew how to provide a new channel, a very natural and happy one, to the river of my poems.

LS: Many different musicians have used your words as song lyrics or have otherwise added music to accompany your writing. Is this similar to the experience of being translated, perhaps? What has this process been like for you?  Have you also written poems meant to be accompanied by music or has it only happened “after the fact,” as it were?

MC: I do like that comparison, yes. For me the translation and the musical interpretation of a poem have points in common, certainly, because in translation you give new sonorities—and therefore new cadences and a different music—to the images that inhabit the verses. In both cases it is a very interesting process: it is as if a child you’ve nourished and watched grow up becomes independent, and you see your offspring go off to another country and establish an independent personality. It is also interesting because suddenly a gesture that for me is very intimate and egocentric, such as the writing of a poem, becomes something collective, part of a chain where the decisions about the accents, emphases, and melodies of the verses might change in the hands of another person. I’ve only experienced this process of musicalization of poems once the text I had written was finished, and I must say that it would be very difficult for me to be part of the creative process of interaction with a musician, because for me it is very difficult to write “on demand” about motifs and subjects that are outside my own imagination or the mood I am in at that moment. And that is precisely why—because of that freedom and the complete responsibility of the musicians in their decisions about my words—the results always surprise me: each interprets the poems with different nuances, sometimes nuances that I haven’t myself seen (although for me the reading that I make of my poems is not privileged nor does it have any more value than that of anyone else), putting emphasis on aspects of the text that others don’t highlight. This is, ultimately, polyphonic and, to the degree that it is diverse, enriching.

The translation and the musical interpretation of a poem have points in common . . . in translation you give new sonorities—and therefore new cadences and a different music—to the images that inhabit the verses.

LS: You are a linguist as well as a poet; how does your academic work influence your creative writing?

MC: I think it has a decisive effect. I am writing my PhD thesis on phonetics and phonology, and for me the way of looking at words from these scientific disciplines is very akin to the way I look at them when I write poems: as mere receptacles, as pure sound. When I write poetry I use words that way: as if they were emptied of their meaning and the echoes of the literary tradition, and as if (with hope, with fiction) they could be filled with the meaning that the container, that is the sound of saying a word, informs them. In my poems there are, for example, references to hiatus, to the dissolution of a synaloepha, as a metaphor of breaking; and there are also reflections about the deictic meanings of some words: what part of you and of me are contained in the word us? These are all subjects that matter to me, because deep down I am concerned about the impossibility of saying things—and, at the same time, the urge to do so—that happens when things break down: what words can I use when the old words no longer serve, because they have ruptured, because the landscape is now different? And this is, in short, a linguistic problem.

LS: While your books include both prose poetry and more traditional free verse, do you consider yourself exclusively a poet? Have you ever written fiction, say, or have any plans to? What do you consider is unique about poetry as a means of expression for you?

MC: I’m not very convinced by the use of these labels as static compartments: I am interested in transit, in porosity. In my latest book, La ciutat cansada [The Weary City], poetic prose predominates, but in very different shapes: there are prose pieces which are heavily infused with the resources of poetry (with internal rhymes, a certain alteration of syntax . . .), and poetic prose that draws much more on the formal resources of narrative, although I would say that the aim is poetic to the degree that I don’t seek to tell a story, but instead use a story to construct a symbol. And a symbol, it’s clear, is poetry.

I don’t know what I shall write in the future: I am obviously very interested by narrative, but I don’t know if I will ever be able to write a story because I am very interested in the details, I like to look at things very up close, and this has been a stumbling block in the plot of the attempts at narrative prose that I’ve tried to write. What is essential in poetry for me is the music, that is to say this particular interaction between form and meaning imposed by the metrical structure or the cadence and the “breathing” of the poem. This formal construction, which for some is difficult or bothersome, is very comfortable for me, it shelters me: because it impedes my saying what I want to say in a linear and direct fashion, forcing me to search for other words that mold themselves well to the poem’s skeleton, such that the end result has the echoes of meaning of the point of departure plus the echoes of meaning of the end result used.

LS: Lastly, can you tell us a little about your own personal relationship with Sant Jordi, both as an author and a reader?

MC: Sant Jordi is my favorite holiday of the year. For what it represents: an exaltation of love and of literature, which are two things without which I can’t conceive the world. Although the throngs of people prove at times excessive for me and I flee from them, for any bibliophile the fact that the streets fill up with stands of book is always thrilling. As a reader I am happy that day because I buy (or rather I should say that I have already bought, in the previous days) books for all the people I love, and it thrills me to think carefully about which book I shall buy for each of them. As an author this will be my first public Sant Jordi, we could say: I’ve never before signed books at the stands in the Ramblas. It is exciting to think of that contact with readers, which for me is the part I miss most in the publishing process: the moment when the book is out in the world on its own, and you become aware that those poems which were so intimately your own are now public, they are for whoever wants to pick them up. And it is always moving to meet someone who has made them their own.

Read Maria Cabrera’s “ways of knowing and other poems,” translated by Mary Ann Newman

Attend WWB’s evening of Catalan poetry with Maria Cabrera, Mary Ann Newman, and Adrian Nathan West, on April 19 in Brooklyn, NY


Published Apr 18, 2017   Copyright 2017 Lawrence Schimel

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