Philip Metres interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Philip, featured here are three short sections of a longer sequence, “Hung Lyres,” that will appear in your forthcoming book with Alice James, Sand Opera. Can you say how these pieces represent, or do not, Sand Opera as a whole? It’s an interesting title as well; can you give us a hint as to how the title represents the work therein?
In some sense, “Hung Lyres” is bit of a departure from Sand Opera’s focus on the wars of the post-9/11 period, with its documentary explorations of the abu ghraib prison scandal and the policy of “extraordinary renditions.” “Hung Lyres” is a series of autobiographical lyric poems that meditate on my daughter’s new life (and my becoming a father) during a time of imperial and terrorist violence. My first daughter was conceived in the months just after 9/11, and she was born into a country very much at war. I remember when she was born, the first thing that stunned me about her were the reticulations of her beautiful little ears, so invisible in utero. The utter fragility of her being, her sweet and vulnerable body, seemed more fragile and vulnerable in light of the machinery of warfare and violence—not only over the airwaves, but above our city streets, where police helicopters hovered nightly over Cleveland. The title is a gloss on Psalm 137, which is translated variously, but one of which is “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, we also wept, when we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres on the willows in its midst.” In the poetic sequence, but also throughout Sand Opera, the question of the art and its role in a world of devastation recurs; does one give up, “hang one’s lyre,” and just weep? It’s intriguing, of course, that this is a song recalling a time when it was impossible to sing. I’m wary about art that pronounces its own feebleness, and as wary about art that refuses to see itself as a kind of privilege.
How do you see your work negotiating current manifestations of the lyric poem?
In Sand Opera, I’ve been exploring many different modalities of poetry—in this book, one will read—in addition to a number of documentary “found” poems and collage—a sestina, a pantoum, some fractured sonnets, a couple narrative poems, and some lyric poems. I’ve always been interested in the notion of poetries, rather than “poetry” in the singular. Since I’m not a partisan for a particular way of poetry, I feel the freedom and responsibility to read widely and try everything.
We are fortunate to have, in addition to your own work, some of your translations this month. What is it that first struck you, or insisted itself upon you enough to take on translation the poems of Tarkovsky? Did you, as you were engaged in the process, find things remarkable that you didn’t notice before you began the act of translation?
I first read Arseny Tarkovsky over twenty years ago while studying contemporary Russian poetry and its response to historical change. My mentor and friend and now co-translater Dima Psurtsev introduced me to Tarkovsky’s poetry (and to his son Andrei’s visionary filmmaking). Poems like “Manuscript” and “First Times Together” were revelatory, not only for their mystical sensibility, but also for their pure music.
A little bit of background is necessary. Russian poetry has presented for English language translators a number of acute and irreducible problems, but the most acute and irreducible is the Russian poetic tradition’s relationship to syllabotonic meter. The regularity of Russian conjugations and declensions, the flexibility of word order in sentence meaning, and the multisyllabic nature of Russian words all combine to create a seemingly endless wellspring of rhymes and metrical possibilities. In contrast to the poetries of the United States and Europe, which inhaled modernism’s breath of free verse and seemed only rarely to return to the formal rooms of strict meters, Russian poetry has, until only very recently, been almost entirely faithful to its highly organized and lush meters. In Tarkovsky’s poetry alone, one can find poems not only in iambic, but also in dactylic, anapestic, amphibrachic, not to mention folksongs, unrhymed metrical poems and even free verse.
It’s as if, in the United States, our poetry, metrically speaking, plays its tune within the limits of the pop form, while in Russia, whole symphonies continue to be produced. Tarkovsky, to my ear, was a poet driven as much by sound as by sense—more than nearly all American poets writing today.
This is asked of translators all the time, I know, but do you see translating affecting your own poetry in any significant way?
Translating Russian poetry was how I cut my poetic teeth; having graduated from Holy Cross with a couple poetry workshops and one honors project under my belt, I needed to read and struggle over hundreds of poems, working on them from the inside-out, as it were, until I saw how poems could be built so variously, so sturdily, and so beautifully. Translation was my way into reading poetry and then into writing it. But translating, like writing, is enormously humbling, and I still feel as if I’m learning how to do it each time I approach an untranslated poem.
Would you like to say something about a chapbook that came out this year from Diode Editions, “A Concordance of Leaves”?
“A Concordance of Leaves” details a 2003 visit to the village of Toura in the Palestinian West Bank, on the occasion of my sister’s wedding to a resident of the village. Some ten years after that experience, I opened an old file of notes from that adventure and suddenly found myself flooded with memories and phrases from our time together. It is said that the unconscious, the spirit self, lags at least seven years behind our daily lives, and this poem feels like living proof of that truism; the material was too hot to the touch for a long time. Then it began to cool and crystallize. What remains is an homage to the generosity and beauty of the people of that village, who came out together to celebrate the wedding, to sing and dance and eat together—despite all the difficulties that they faced in their lives simply because they were Palestinian.
Can you tell us about another project of yours, a blog where you extend the arguments in Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 (U of Iowa P, 2007)?
The blog began in 2007 and was a daily obsession for a handful of years, as I tried to translate the scholarly argot of that book into a language that might help artists (particularly poets) and activists see the parallels in their work. Like many blogs, it had its heyday in the “aughts” and seems to have become more of an afterthought in the Age of Facebook. But it has been a place where I could continue to unfold the argument that political art is alive and well in the United States and elsewhere in the world, and that it is not the uglier, stupider sibling of “art for art’s sake,” but its own proud being and tradition.
(from “Hung Lyres”) to appear in SAND OPERA (Alice James, 2015)
The new theory: not to praise too much, lest the child lose her inner sense of what pleasures, the listening tuned inward.
In silence before sleep, looking up to her ceiling, four years in her mind, she says: someone is telling the story of our life.
I see her great-grandmother in her brown eyes, in her roil of curls.
I don’t know who it is.
In the woods of her wander, she.
They will be telling it our whole life.
you mute you without openings
enwombed you greedy to eat the fruit of light
to swallow elixirs of sound
marooned you in that watery egg that mother
voice a constant hum above
this is the air you could & ample be
everyone waking to sirens
the arc & com
motion of glass released from its bottle
this is aria of nightfall that sets the anvil
to tremble the temple behind the temples
when you emerged not mouth or fingers but cries
& whorls & folds to hold sound in
the first thing I saw was your ear
In the cell of else / in the pitch-white
someone’s hands shackled between ankles
in the nights & sunny days keeping the clouds
shaking the rib cage & no way
to keep the music from entering & breaking
the bodies hit / Let the bodies hit the /Barney
is a dinosaur / this is the touching without being
touched / this is the being without
silence / from our imagination / in wave upon
wave / in a shipping container & I love you
in a box of shock you love me / in a cemented
dream / we’re a happy family /
with a great big hug and chains that leave no mark
Won’t you say you love me too?