interview by Chip Livingston
photos by Paola Scagliotti
Jesse Lee Kercheval, renowned author, professor, editor, and translator, has joined with the University of New Mexico Press to present in English, for the first time, a collection of 22 Uruguayan poets under the age of 40. Kercheval paired poets and translators to produce a diverse collection of voices and styles in the magnificent anthology América Invertida.
The extraordinary Kercheval, whom I privately call the Embajadora de Poesía Uruguaya, agreed to take a few moments to answer my questions about how she ended up in Uruguay, how she came to translating these emerging and classic poets, and why she works so tirelessly to introduce them to English readers.
Chip Livingston: You were in Uruguay twice this year to participate in both the Mundial Poético de Montevideo I and to launch the bilingual anthology of emerging Uruguayan poets, América invertida, but before these professional literary events and the friendships you’ve developed there were established, what initially drew you to Uruguay and what was it or is it about the country that enchants you?
Jesse Lee Kerchevel: I ended up in Uruguay completely by chance. I grew up in Florida and my best friend’s mother was Cuban, but I never took a Spanish class. Since I was born in France, I always took French in high school and college. Then in 2008, my family and I went to Guanajuato, Mexico for two weeks over New Year’s to stay with a local family and attend a language school. This was really for my daughter, Magdalena, who was in high school, had always loved Spanish and had gone to a Spanish language immersion summer camp every year. My son, Max, was in the kids class. My husband, Dan, who had had Spanish growing up in Florida, in an intermediate class. I was in the class for people learning their numbers and colors. I did not get a verb until the end of my first week (gustar).
Let me tell you, it is really hard to have conversations at the dinner table without verbs. But I loved it. It was wonderful being a student again after so many years of being a professor. And I realized how foolish it felt living in America and not knowing Spanish. I am a big music fan—all kinds of music—and I knew I would often miss the announcements for concerts by say, Los Tigres del Norte, because it would only be publicized on Spanish language radio stations. I had a sabbatical year coming up and I decided I would spend it studying Spanish. The question was where. I thought about Chile or maybe Argentina, then a friend in the Spanish Department suggested Montevideo. My husband and my son would be coming with me, and my friend said she thought it would be a good place for Max to be in school.
I couldn’t imagine committing to a year in a country without visiting it so we went to Uruguay for two weeks over Christmas. The minute we arrived, Max knew he had found his country. There are not many 12-year-old foreigners in Montevideo and when he walked down he street, he was an Uruguayo. Montevideo reminded me of Italy—with good reason since about a quarter of the population are descended from Italian immigrants. But I was startled by the Spanish, all the zzzhs in place of soft Y sounds for the double LLs and Ys. But I went to hear a concert by the murga group Falta y Resto in the gorgeous old opera house Teatro Solis. Murgas are a cappella groups that sing satirical and political songs and are part of the great Uruguayan carnival tradition. We also saw comparsas, companies of candombe drummers, playing in the streets, getting ready for Carnival. We went to a Daniel Viglietti concert. Viglietti often is called the Bob Dylan of Uruguay, but I think the Pete Seeger of Uruguay might be a better comparison. It was the last concert of the year, before everything closed for summer vacation, and the theater was packed with Uruguayan families, everyone singing along. So it was the music that first drew me to Uruguay. My husband, on the other hand, noticed how expensive it was to live there. Uruguayans struggle with the high cost of housing and for us it was more expensive than Madison (Wisconsin). But Max was the one involuntarily leaving his friends for a year to go to school in a language he didn’t speak—so Uruguay it was.
So we moved to Montevideo—son, husband, even our then ten-year-old rat terrier—for nine months. I started taking Spanish language classes five to eight hours a day. My son started seventh grade, the first year of high school in Uruguay at Liceo Latinamericano where he was their first foreign student. At first, I remember standing in a bookstore and thinking how crazy this was for a writer—to move to a country where I couldn’t read a any of the books for sale around me. But soon that was not true. When I had told friends and colleagues about my plans for a sabbatical year studying Spanish, everyone had assumed since I was a poet, I was planning on translating poetry. But I had told them all I only wanted to have conversations about tomatoes. And that was true for the first months. All my first friends, still my friends, from those days are people completely outside the world of professors and poets. One of my best friends was Max’s first Spanish teacher (and her husband, it turned out, plays in Daniel Viglietti’s band). But little by little, I drifted back to my old ways. One day, standing in the same bookstore, I bought my first book of Uruguayan poetry, the complete poems of Idea Vilariño—and after that, there was no going back.
I should also add I am a big fútbol fan so that was another early, strong bond with Uruguay, a country that produces two things in astonishing abundance—poets and world class soccer players.
CL: Did your translation work begin with Vilariño and the poets who were part of the Generacion del 45? And what led you to the work of the younger, emerging poets included in América invertida and Earth, Sky and Water?
JLK: My first translation project was América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets. The idea was to put to gather a bilingual anthology of Uruguayan poets under 40 by matching each poet with a poet who was also a translator in the U.S. I wanted to do something for the young poets I had heard reading in Montevideo, where there is a reading, sometimes two or three, most nights—some part of long running series like the Ronda de poetas, run by the poet Martín Barea Mattos, who is in the anthology, or La Pluma Azul, one of the organizers of that series, Alicia Preza, is in the anthology as well and others that come and go or get reborn after an absence, many centered on the boliche—bar or pub—Kalima.
The anthology was just published by the University of New Mexico Press in September. I was in Uruguay for a book presentation reading and have been doing readings myself or with translators and poets around the country all Autumn. This anthology has become more than a book—I really do think of it as a project. So far five books have been or will be published that were a direct result of the pairing of Uruguayan and American poets and the anthology and more are in the works.
But while I was working on the anthology, I fell in love with the poetry of Circe Maia, who, at 84, is one of the greatest living Uruguayan poets, This resulted The Invisible Bridge/ El puente invisible: Selected Poems of Circe Maia, which was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press last Fall. Then I translated a book by one of the poets from América invertida, Javier Etchevarren. That book, Fable of an Inconsolable Man, will be published by Action Books in February and I am bringing Javier to the U.S. for a tour. He will be at the Associated Writing Programs convention in Washington, D.C., at my university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Notre Dame, the home of Action Books, and at McNally Jackson Books in New York.
I am also bringing Virginia Lucas, another wonderful Uruguayan poet to the U.S. on that tour. She is in a second anthology I edited, Earth, Sky and Water: A Bilingual Anthology of Environmental Poetry. This book, which included poems by Uruguayan and Argentinian poets, was published in Uruguay by the publisher Yaugarú and the South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability Studies (SARAS). SARAS is a wonderful international scientific institute that is based in Uruguay and they contacted me about bringing poets to their annual conference. I thought it was a wonderful idea! There is not enough collaboration between the arts and the sciences. I issued a call for poems by Uruguayan and Argentinian poets on environmental themes, SARAS awarded prizes to three of the poets, and I arranged for ten to be translated and they were published in the bilingual anthology. The three prize winners, Natalie Romero (Argentina, translated by Seth Michelson), Sebastián Rivero (Uruguay, translated by Catherine Jagoe) and Virginia Lucas (Uruguay, translated by Jen Hofer) read at the conference. That was a wonderful day with so much poetry being shared with hundreds of scientists. In February, Dialogos Books is bringing the anthology out in the U.S. and SARAS is paying for Virginia Lucas’s trip to the U.S.
Then I finally started translating Idea Vilariño—so she is actually my most recent project of all these!
CL: You mention in the Introduction to AMÉRICA INVERTIDA how pervasive poetry and writing are in Uruguayan society, quoting Leo Maslíah’s song “Biromes y servilletas” (“Bic Pens and Napkins”) and adding that he isn’t exaggerating in his lines about Montevideo, as the place where “there are poets, poets, poets” who only “write, write, write” on every piece of paper they can find. And Uruguayans seem to place such high esteem on poets. I remember how surprised I was to find the monument with Juana de Ibarbourou’s poem along the Rambla in Pocitos, not to mention her portrait on the U$Y1,000 peso note. Why do you think Uruguayans pay such high regard for their writers?
JKL: I don’t want to exaggerate—poetry readings do not take place in packed stadiums in Uruguay (unlike soccer games). But I do think it is part of the Uruguayan national identity. All countries have stories/histories that help them define their sense of who they are. For Uruguay, poetry is part of this. Mario Benedetti, part of the famous Generation of ’45 and part of the generation of writers, like Borges, who brought Latin American writing to the attention of U.S. readers, wrote in a cafe in the downtown (centro) of Montevideo. He died in 2009 but there is still a moving tribute to him in the window of the cafe.
CL: English readers in the U.S. have long had access to translations of some popular South American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabelle Allende and Pablo Neruda. What drives you to work so hard to make other, less known Latino authors, accessible to more readers?
JKL: Well, I think by not having access to the writers of Uruguay in translation, English readers are missing some of the best of the best—and though I may not be impartial, it is true that the poetry of Uruguay is widely acknowledged in Latin America as important. People I meet from other countries in Latin America are often shocked to hear how few of the Uruguayan greats—Idea Vilariño, Ida Vitale, Mario Benedetti, even prose writers like Juan Carlos Onetti or Horacio Quiroga—are available in complete or good translations in English.
My current obsession is the women poets of Uruguay. Uruguay really has an unbroken line of amazing, world class women poets and they need to be known outside Uruguay and outside Spanish. It frustrates me to see recent anthologies of Latin or South American poetry with so few women in them—when there are such great women poets in Uruguay alone. So, I am working hard to get them translated or, if they are translated, better known. I’ve done a recent feature for Drunken Boat of Uruguayan women poets and I working on one for the Western Humanities Review.
CL: You teach creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison so you are obviously familiar with working with emerging writers. Do you see a distinction in the emerging voices between the two hemispheres, either in subject matter, form, or style?
JKL: The surprising thing, really, is the similarity. In form and style, the range in América Invertida runs from traditional—sonnets—to experimental to spoken word. In subject matter, there are also a lot of similarities, women writing about what it is like to be a woman in the world, poets writing about their childhoods, but the political and historical subject matter are different—and that difference is one of the things that makes the poems so interesting and so rich.
CL: How is translating the younger poets different from translating the more classic poet of South America?
JLK: The poet I translated for the anthology América invertida, Agustín Lucas, who is a both professional fútbol player AND a poet, uses a lot of lunfardo, the tango slang of Uruguay and Argentina, which is constantly being updated with new meanings, and lots of references to a card game, trucho, which is well known there but unknown here. One of my jobs as editor was to go over all the translators work and make sure they were not making a mistake with an Uruguayan reference or word. Basically, Uruguay has a different word for every fruit, vegetable and item of clothing—and that is before you get to the lunfardo.
But overall, the Uruguayans are very concerned about the environment, so that has made its way into the poetry. Some writers are also concerned with their country’s history, especially the treatment of the indigenous people during the settlement of Uruguay, as well as with social injustice and what they see as a growing problem of inequality. Many of the woman poets address the issue of what it is like to be a woman in Uruguay.
CL: You were in Montevideo in September to launch the América invertida anthology with a series of readings. Can you talk a little about the book’s reception there?
JKL: The reading in Montevideo for América invertida was a real celebration! It was in the lovely auditorium of the Spanish Cultural Center in the Ciudad Vieja. Nearly all the poets read and then there was wine! A culmination of a big project and a lot of work and it was so good to hear everyone’s voices! I was also on Radio Uruguay with two of the poets, Karen Wild and Javier Etchevarren, talking about the anthology. Everyone there—poets, public—and here—translators, the UNM Press—are delighted with how it turned out!
CL: You mentioned how successful the placement was for the poems comprising América Invertida, that nearly all of the translations and poems were first published in literary journals. Is that excitement toward the South American poets continuing?
JLK: I hoped this pairing would produce work beyond the anthology and open up more doors for the Uruguayan poets, and it succeeded belong my wildest dreams. Not only were nearly all the poems (and more) published in magazines, but ten or more of the translators went on to translate whole collections by their poets. Six of those are out or forthcoming.
CL: That’s fantastic. And also the Earth, Sky and Water anthology. Can you tell us more about that series and this anthology, the first one to come out in the U.S.?
JLK: The Earth, Sky, and Water anthology was a collaboration with an international scientific organization SARAS, which hold a conference every year in Maldonado, Uruguay. For this year’s conference, they contacted me saying they wanted to work with poets, and so I put out a call for poems from Argentine and Uruguayan poets about the environment and environmental issues. The Uruguayan poet Marcelo Pelligrini picked three prize winners and seven other poets to include in the anthology. Then, as with América invertida, I paired each a poet with a poet who was also a translator. The Uruguayan publisher, Yagaurú, designed and printed the anthology, which was distributed at the conference. There was a wonderful reading at the conference, which left me wishing more scientific conferences had a vision that included the arts. But more broadly, made me realize that all our closed worlds—conferences for writers, translators, historians, economists, engineers—would benefit if we opened our doors to others and their different but complementary visions of the future. Then we had another reading in Montevideo.
I expected that to be the end of that project. But then, when I was in Montevideo for the Mundial Poético in May, Bill Lavender, one of the U.S. poets participating in the conference, who is also the editor and publisher of Lavender Ink/ Diálogos Books, bought a copy of the anthology and said he wanted to bring it out in the United States. Poetry can be a small and wonderful world! The anthology will be out in time for the Associated Writers and Writing Programs annual conference in Washington, D.C. in early February 2017. I am working right now to get some money together to bring a few of the poets from América invertida and from Earth, Sky and Water to the U.S. for the conference and a tour of other cities. Fingers crossed about that!
Here is a poem from América Invertida by Laura Chalar, translation by Erica Mena. The original Spanish is below.
avenida 18 de julio
if walt whitman were here, how he would sing of them and sing
to them with the deep voice of a street prophet, dedicating the
hymn of his long grey vigil to the dark flock of the gentle poor,
ant citizens, his hand touching the woman who waits at the bus
stop, the policeman, the scavenger, the law clerk in his exhausted
shoes, the begging children, the begging elderly, the fat salesgirls,
the kids spilling out of the law school, the garrapiñero, the watch-
band seller, the half-blind lottery ticket seller, the supreme court
judge who is running late again, the man who just bought a smart-
phone, the woman who recites poems on the bus, the shoe shiner,
the people handing out flyers for loan sharks or massage parlors,
and me, who watches it all with the love of someone who is bound
to leave, someone who is already leaving.
si estuviera walt whitman acá, cómo los cantaría y les cantaría
con su ronca voz de augur callejero, dedicándole su himno de
larga vigilia gris a la oscura grey de pobres mansos, ciudadanía
de hormigas, tocando con su mano a la que espera en la parada,
al policía, al hurgador, al procurador cansado en sus zapatos, a
los niños que piden, a los viejos que piden, a las gordas de la
expo, a los chiquilines que salen de facultad, al garrapiñero, al del
puestito de correas de reloj, al quinielero medio ciego, al ministro
de la suprema corte que una vez más llega tarde, al que se com-
pró el celular con internet, a la que recita poemas en el ómnibus,
al lustrabotas, a las que reparten volantes de usureros o casas de
masajes y a mí, que miro todo con el amor de quien se va, quien
se está yendo.
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