Friday, December 13, 2013

On Creativity: Terry Hermsen

Last week, I interviewed poet, professor (and friend!) Terry Hermsen for the Columbus Alive (you can read that profile here). I first met Terry in 1999, when he was a visiting poet at my high school. As the literary magazine editor and an all-around poetry nerd, I assisted him during the workshops that he led. He gave us such fun exercises (one involved making near-rhymes of multi-syllabic words), and was kind enough to give me feedback on a poem or two.

Now, over a decade later, I’ve so enjoyed re-meeting him. We both teach at Otterbein University, have read together at multiple poetry readings around Columbus, and exchange and discuss poems when we get the chance.

Terry has just returned from Chile, where he was gathering material and inspiration for projects about translation, travel, identity, culture, and poetry. Since the profile I wrote of him is rather brief (although I am pleased with it!), here’s a more extended version of our conversation. He has such fascinating thoughts about what it means to translate, and how place/poetry/history intersect.

Watch Terry's 2012 reading at Paging Columbus (crank the volume!)

My trip was a continuation of a trip I took four years ago, which was at that time, focused on Neruda. He’s sort of the doorway into world poetry for many people...for me, he was my first introduction to a poet I really liked from another culture.

It’s hard to avoid Neruda in Chile. That’s where it all started--in 2007 when I was there for a week. I had his book there with me and I wanted to talk to people, so I asked them what they thought of Neruda.

Last time I went to Chile, in 2009, I tried to teach myself Spanish. I translated a book last time simply to teach myself Spanish. I thought, if I can go through it line by line, and try to see what I can do, that will help me, and then I found I really liked translating. That book is almost finished, but that got me excited to do more translation.

I’ve been taking Spanish classes now...that’s better. I’m only interested in it for the words. Of course I want to talk with people, but it’s more a poetry project to hear how poetry works in another language.

I had college students helping me [on this trip]. We went around the streets of Santiago and interviewed 70 people, and I have 30 more recordings coming in.

[I learned that] you can talk to people about poetry in the streets of Chile...the people we spoke to were really thoughtful about it. We asked them:
  1. What do you think of poetry (on a scale of 1-10) and why?
  2. What poets do you know and like?
  3. What do you think of Neruda (on a scale of 1-10) and why?
  4. Has Chile changed as a country?

That’s my big question. I mean, I’m a stranger...but it’s thought of as a country of poets. But Chile is becoming a bit like the’s economically-savvy, stuffed to the gills with advertising, very Western. It’s car-oriented, mall-oriented...It’s none of my business, but I’m a little worried that a country of poets is becoming less and less so.

The most interesting answers were to that fourth question. Has Chile become a different place? I’d watch the people’s faces, especially the older people’s faces who were there during the coup...this one guy, a street was like a storm cloud passed over his face as he spoke about the changes.

There’s a strong dynamic between the sense of poetry, the sense of place, and history as it a culture gets more economically vibrant, what happens to that sense of place? to that sense of belonging?...That’s where we are as a country.

If you think ecologically, when we lose our sense of place, we lose our sense of connection. And then the Earth is like this empty field where we put up buildings...we just construct things, and then, who cares about it.

It’s not that I love all of Neruda’s work completely....But it’s definitely poetry that says, Chile matters, the Earth matters, connection to rivers and sea, and all those odes to tomatoes and onions...that we should value the earth.

I think when we erase particulars, and make it all the same, where is poetry left? And not that the need for poetry will go away...I grew up in a suburb. I think part of it was, I wanted something more than this superficial happy sameness that we were supposed to have but didn’t feel real to me. I think poetry grows out of a sense of wanting something real that goes deeper than the quick buck, the quick economic flash. If a country like Chile loses it, this could be a symbol for other places is what I’m saying....(and we could study this anywhere).

Here’s poetry, which is the voice of the heart or people trying to figure out what it means to be alive. Here’s place, which where we have traditionally grown our connection. And then, here’s change...I’m taking Chile as a tiny microcosm, but an important one.

There’s no figure here [in the States] that’s like a Neruda. People do  have favorite poems here....Pinksy asked people to send in favorite poems. I don’t know if they have favorite poets.
I’d like to do this experiment in Columbus. I want to take classes out to do this in the spring...we’d ask, “Do you have a favorite poem?” It’d be worth comparing....

I’m translating a book of poems right now (El Cementerio Mas Hermoso de Chile by Christian Formoso). It’s definitely a book about place (it’s a particular cemetery that’s in Punta Arenas, which is on the Straits of Magellan).

If I had to pick out the high point [of the trip], it would be spending seven days on the Straits of Magellan. There’s this great bike path along the straits of Magellan...I rode my bike every single day, and taught at a school there, and was one block from the cemetery.

It is incredibly windy. Five of the seven days there you were pushing against the wind. They apparently have guidewires in the street so people can hold on and aren’t blowing over! It has a nice central downtown plaza--every Chilean town (maybe every Spanish town) has one, El Centro...

The best thing is this huge swath of the Straits of Magellan. It’s like the Mississippi river. It’s probably’s huge. From the town, it looks endless. All across there are basically uninhabited islands and inlets...not much sea traffic. You see Magellan’s’s just such a well-done statue. It almost looks like he is both elated and totally afraid of what he’s doing. His eyes are set so he’s looking out across through the’s just a great sculpture. Riding up and down that....that was great.

I have never been anywhere like [the cemetery]. It’s like a miniature town, with each little gravesite like a tiny house...I was there for the Day of the Dead. The day before that, everyone was out repainting the houses. There are little walls, with little yards. The walls are adobe, and pink, and there’s a grave in the middle. There are artificial flowers, or whole bulbs that have come up, and little’s like little train sets for the dead.

We read translations at the cemetery, in front of the graves. We read one in front of a Memorial to the Disappeared. That was the most moving part.

I’m now working on a book about this, a mix of travel narrative/creative nonfiction in the form of a story.

I’ve been reading a lot about translating. It just interests me. And I think poets publish too much...we don’t need to publish as much as we do, I don’t think. What’s the point? I think poetry is important, it should be read, and discussed...but I feel like our job is to put some new energy into reading. And for me, my Spanish isn’t good enough to read. I can’t read this book unless I translate it! It’s my way of reading.

It’s a way of reading that’s the most intense reading you could possibly do, a deeper reading. We say, what is this word really doing in this spot?  It feels like writing. And many others have said this same thing. It feels like the poem becomes yours, to a degree. I can’t call myself a translator yet. I’m hoping in 5-6 years, maybe. I’m starting late...

I feel like this project is a way of grappling with who we are as Americans. I don’t use this term [“Americans”] anymore--all US people think we’re Americans, but what about other North Americans...and South’s just too big a term.

If we’re really Americans (and included Chile and included Brazil and included Guatemala, for that matter), how would our vision of ourselves change? As poets, or as people? I was on the other end of that continent! You can’t get much farther down unless you step into Antarctica and still be in the Western hemisphere! How come I had to go that far away for this?

I felt like I was in a lens, looking back at the continents. Because it’s really close to Antarctica, and the winds are blowing so hard, and it feels like I’m looking through the lens of all these swirling winds, and what do they have to do with the last 500 years of history, and all these ecological questions....

I’ve come to the conclusion that going to one place, and trying to know it well is better for me. I’ve been reading so much about Chile...about its ecology, and even its economics. It’s a microcosm for trying to know the planet in a different way. And through the poetry.  As much as I like what’s happening in the U.S. with poetry...I still feel like we’re closed [culturally]. We’re mainly focused on our lives.

For my students, I’m pushing knowing other languages, and reading in the original language. I’ve realized how weak translations can be, even translations that we’ve read and lived with for years. For writers, it’s good to know at least one other language, and play with translating a little.

It’d be possible just to get a dictionary, and start working your way through the words. You’ll make all kinds of mistakes. Spanish is a language, I’ve learned, that rides on its verbs, and English is a language that rides on its nouns. You can have sentences without pronouns in Spanish! You can write a whole book without the word “I”! This would be impossible in English.

It would be great to start language classes here in third grade. There are fifth graders that I met in Chile at three different schools who were all bilingual. Here they were, at fifth and sixth grade, being able to translate and make decisions between words. How could that not help your brain?! Or maybe even your sense that there are different ways of looking at things.

It’s not to be blaming us [Americans], because we don’t have to [switch languages]. Someone I met at the hostel, she knew German, Swedish, Spanish, and English...I saw her use them all within a 15 minute time period. I told her how bad I felt. She said, You don’t need to. There’s no need for you to travel to, say, Indiana, and speak another language. Whereas if they cross boundaries they do.

Yes, aren’t we [poets] the guides to language, and if we don’t, how do we expect the rest of the culture?

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