An Interview with Jon Davis

Sara Sams

Sara Sams: How did you find Naseer Hassan’s work, and how did the translation project begin? What was the most exciting threshold you crossed/challenge you met while working on translating Dayplaces?

Jon Davis: Naseer was at the Iowa International Writers Program at the University of Iowa in 2011. The director of that program is an old friend from Santa Fe, Christopher Merrill. Chris arranged to bring a group of those international writers to Santa Fe in September of 2011. Naseer traveled with that group to the Institute of American Indian Arts where I teach and so I got to meet him. I gave him a copy of my book, Scrimmage of Appetite. A few months later, Naseer contacted me about several of my poems that he wanted to translate into Arabic. We had a great discussion of language, approaches, thematic matters. At some point, Naseer decided to apply for a fellowship in the US. He contacted me to help guide him through the process. He had a letter of application, an essay on writing Dayplaces, and ten or twelve poems that he had co-translated with Chris Merrill. I volunteered to look the whole application over, wound up making some fairly minor edits. But we had an excellent conversation. At the end of that conversation, Naseer asked me if I wanted to work on the book. I said yes and we set to work. The most exciting threshold came immediately, when my intense focus on minutiae was welcomed by Naseer. Then I knew the project was going to be pleasurable.

SS: You mentioned that you worked closely with Naseer Hassan over an extended period of time on translating these poems. How did that process guide your translations? Did those conversations influence your own poetry (and, specifically I’m curious: did you have conversations about poetic perspective, and did those conversations influence your own poetry?).

JD: We both sensed an immediate poetic kinship in that I think we felt positioned on the cusp of postmodernism and modernism, wanting to stretch language and form but maintain coherence, and to be, in Naseer’s words, “disciplined and fragmented at the same time.” We had a number of conversations at the outset focused on how experimental the book was in relation to Iraqi poetry and Arabic poetry generally (answer: very), and what his attitude was to accessibility and coherence (he was not interested in obfuscation, believed in coherence, however fleeting it might be). We discussed contemporary American poetry, the range from fairly conventional poetics to radically experimental poetics. I explained early on that these were key questions for the translation process.

I’m still waiting to see if this translation work will influence my own poetry. Influence in my own work is traceable mostly in retrospect. The translation work has made me see how every poem is an imperfect translation from experience both real and imagined.

SS: So what is the response to Naseer’s work amongst Iraqi poets? Among Arabic poets?

JD: I’m not sure. A group of Iraqi artists and writers that visited my school after Naseer knew his work as translator, but not as poet. So I suspect he’s an outsider to the poetry “scene.”

SS: I’m extremely curious about how you navigated Hassan’s poetic voice. These poems are from a section titled “I”/ Sedimentations / A Duration, and the “I” in quotation marks seems, to me, to function as a kind of wink, asserting the precariousness of a first-person perspective. Did the subtitle serve as a guide for you as you worked to bring this complex voice into English? How?

JD: I could see that his poetry was cosmopolitan, modernist in intent, but sometimes postmodernist in technique. The postmodernist techniques (including acknowledging the destabilization of the self or what you call “the precariousness of a first-person perspective”) were not intended to be lightly ironic; they mirrored instead the chaotic times Naseer had lived through, but which, in Naseer’s view, the whole world has endured: “The agony here is the world’s agony, which can mean everything’s agony, my agony, the nation’s agony, the agony of human life, and so on, but of course this is one side of the world, the other side is its beauty.”

Naseer’s family had been opposed to Saddam for many years and had been subject to Saddam’s violent tactics. Naseer was a member of secret opposition groups and was imprisoned for his views. One uncle had been secretly poisoned in prison and then released—only to die cruelly within three days. Most Americans, myself included, cannot imagine the chaos and institutional violence that Naseer and his family and friends must have endured. Naseer’s apparent “postmodernism” arises from his daily life in perpetually war-torn Iraq. Naseer had this to say in one of our earliest exchanges: “By the way, my second poetry collection is titled Suggested Signs. This sense of suggestion … is emanating from the concept that there is not a ‘final’ or even ‘very confident’ truth, and all that we have are … interpretations — curves, spirals, and endeavors, where things can look quite different from different perspectives.” And concerning the “I,” Naseer had this to say: “While the ‘I’ is put between quotation marks, which might suggest what is the ‘I’ after all, what but a process rather than something definite, matching the general tone of reflecting and speculating, almost as if to say I without quotation marks is too certain, almost naïve.”

SS: As a reader, the section title leads me to believe that the following poems will be concerned with the idea of the first person perspective. Or that — when considered in relation to time (“A Duration”) and land (“Sedimentations”) — the I as we perhaps desire to find in any poem, the lyrical I, destabilizes. How do the different pronouns — I, he, you, and then the them of “The Others” — work together in these poems? Do these pronouns work differently in the source language, and if so, how did you navigate that? Am I correct in reading the I/he/you as different avenues that approach the same perspective/mind/memory, or is it that my pesky desire for a unified lyrical I has derailed me?

JD: Once again, Naseer addressed these questions directly in our email exchange, in the process complicating his ideas about the “I”: “ The second section, which is “‘I,’ Sedimentations, Duration,” is about the continuity or permanence of the “I,” mainly through recalling things, places, experiences in a certain way. … ‘Sedimentations’ can be sedimentations of experience, and ‘duration’ can mean here personal continuity in spite of changing experiences.” It’s typical of Naseer in these emails to use the words “can mean” or “might mean,” in fitting with his overall “suggestiveness” — his sense that the poem ought to be an open text and meaning ought to occur in collaboration with the reader. Over and over, Naseer uses words like “indefinite” and “speculative” in discussions of these poems.

SS: I’m fascinated by how the poems at once offer details of personal memory (“when I was closer to the windows’ iron bars than the sun, and when I was watching”) and yet also create a world which exists somehow apart from that memory. In “Lost, in (Abu Nuas),” it’s the city that seems to have agency: “the sidewalk became empty except for a dull light,” not appeared, or was, but became. As a translator, how did you decide on these verbs? What were some of the hardest word-choice decisions you had to make?

JD: It’s important to remember that Naseer and I were co-translators. And, since I do not speak Arabic, the process involved between 300-350 single spaced pages of me interviewing Naseer about his intentions, about the Arabic language, etc. He would provide a rough version of the poem in English, then I would question anything that seemed awkward or wrong, and suggest edits. Then Naseer would clarify his intentions or try to understand and explain where the poem had taken him, since conscious intention was often beside the point. I’d consider those notes and propose another translation, which would come back to me with another set of notes and suggestions, etc. Most poems required numerous rounds of suggestions and counter-suggestions before they were close to finished. We then went through two or three complete rounds of questions and changes once the manuscript was “finished.” (There will, no doubt, be a few more rounds. In fact, I’m going to email him later today about a word in the subtitle of the book.)

The process was about translating more than language. It was about how to make English responsive to a language and a culture and to position the poems correctly in relation to Iraqi traditions and American traditions. Sometimes “correct” English was an affront to the Arabic. To be honest, sometimes I had to stifle a need to revise the English into something more conventionally “poetic.” The most difficult words? There were several in every poem that we struggled with. In the book’s subtitle, Showdowns on the World and its Depression, which I wanted to dispense with altogether, we have spent a year on the preposition, which is currently “on,” but which began as “about.” At one point I suggested “concerning,” which Naseer rightly felt was too abstract. “Depression” has always bothered me. We had a long discussion, the effect of which was to leave it as “depression,” though I want to revisit “agony” as a possible choice. Multiply this debate by hundreds, and you’ll see why it’s taken us so long.

To address your specific questions about the “agency” of cities of streets and buildings: Yes, in Naseer’s work things might have lives, intentions, and spirits (though he’d be happy that I put “might” in that sentence). By the time we reached section II of the book, I’d become accustomed to windows “reach[ing] … an evening” and an inn, Al Safraa, “[leaving] its lights, to come back, again.” Light, wind, rain, streets, trees, houses, etc. have an eerie presence throughout the book. In my notes, I see that by the time we’d translated these poems, no discussion of agency was required. In looking now at “Camps / A Sun / A Body” everything is in motion, everything has agency, will.

SS: Let’s talk about form. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the original Arabic version, because I wanted to see what these poems look like on the page in the original version. When I first read these poems in your translation, I was curious about the unique line breaks (Was it prose? Long lines that trail off?) and the symbol of the backward slash. How did you decide on the form? Why the backward slashes where (If I’m correct) in the Arabic version there are, in fact, line breaks?

JD: The choice of the shape on the page is Naseer’s. I wanted to use the sentence as the line (a favorite procedure of mine), but Naseer objected (again, correctly). The shape on the page is largely true to the shape of the Arabic. The punctuation resulted from a very long discussion early on. Naseer’s punctuation, according to him, is irregular and non-standard in the Arabic, so we wanted to continue that in the English. We began to call it “intuitional punctuation.” I think I inherited the back slash from Chris Merrill, who had translated ten poems with Naseer before I showed up on the scene. Who knows what accident or intention delivered up those back slashes, but Naseer liked them, and, at least in my imagination, they created a different kind of pause than the other possibilities. They may have begun as line break markers, but I think they’ve traveled since being introduced into the English language versions. I took Naseer’s “intuitional punctuation” idea to heart!

SS: How did you negotiate (not merely between the target and source language, but also) between the target and source languages’ writing systems?

JD: Those 350 pages of emails! We had endless specialized discussions and a number of more general and philosophical exchanges.

SS: One more micro-level question: What about the italics? Do the italics work to underscore a distance between the poem’s speaker and the word being used (the speaker and the word’s origin, perhaps, as in the instance of “cinema”)?

JD: I don’t think we had a consistent scheme for the italics, though I think all do, as you say, “underscore a distance [of one kind or another] between the poem’s speaker and the word being used.” Some italics occur when words are being slightly misused or stretched, some occur when the speaker has slipped into memory, other times an elevated diction has trespassed into the poem, and sometimes the words in italics are borrowed. So you’re exactly right!

SS: When can our readers expect to see Dayplaces in English?

JD: The book is currently scheduled for publication in the New World Translation Series by Tebot Bach Press in the Spring of 2015.

SS: I suspect that my (and the larger American literary scene’s tendency to) focus on questions of form (and often on, as you discussed, conventional poetic-ness) can distract us from considering harder and more important questions regarding translated work. Do you agree, or have any thoughts on this?

JD: In many cases, the focus on form might be too narrow or not the central point, but not with Naseer. Despite the years of suffering and chaos, his intent is not political or narrowly cultural. My interest in his work came from the fact that he’s after the universal, he’s after art with a capital “A.” (After all, two of the prominent guiding spirits of Dayplaces are Homer and Dante!) Here’s what Naseer has to say: “I rarely left Iraq during the wars and tragedies that Iraq endured. I lived through all the major wars before 2003 and after, lost many close friends and relatives, and was more than once in imminent danger myself. Despite this, I don’t express this life experience in a direct way, but rather with a contemplative tone, trying to merge the local with the universal, the sensual with the philosophical, and the temporal with the eternal, inventing, meanwhile, new poetic forms.”

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