In the Spotlight
Cultural Director, Levure Littéraire
Santa Monica, CA Member Since: 2005
About: Hélène Cardona—poet, editor, and literary translator—is the author of seven books, including the poetry collections Life in Suspension and Dreaming My Animal Selves and translations of Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac’s Beyond Elsewhere (winner of a Hemingway Grant); Dorianne Laux’ Ce que nous portons; WhitmanWeb’s Civil War Writings by Walt Whitman; and Birnam Wood by her father, José Manuel Cardona. She has won fellowships from the Goethe-Institut and the Universidad Internacional de Andalucía, as well as the International Book Award in Poetry and the USA Best Book Award. Contributor to The London Magazine and co-editor of Plume, Fulcrum, and Levure Littéraire, Hélène has also served as a mentor for children in the schools in Los Angeles and for AWP's Writer to Writer Mentorship Program.
Photo Credit: Paul Smith
What books have influenced or excited you?
I love to be surprised by a book and am very interested in books that mix genres.
For instance, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter delighted me. It was published as a novel and described as part novella, part polyphonic fable, and part essay on grief, but to me it’s poetry, with many pages looking like poems or prose poems.
The Last Geraldine Officer by Irish poet Thomas McCarthy features ballads, a series of poems in quatrain form, and a sequence of prose poems consisting of the campaign diary of an Irishman serving as an officer in the British army of the Second World War. It’s a masterpiece. It mixes mid-century Gaelic verse and County Waterford recipes. McCarthy also wrote Merchant Prince (The life and passion of Nathaniel Murphy, gentleman-merchant, in Italy and Ireland), a prose novella set in Italy and bookended by two sequences of poems, set largely in Cork, in the period from 1769 to 1831, all of which are interrelated. The writing is refined, splendid, and the novella reminds me of Henry James. This is a very original, lyrical book, with again a mixture of verse and prose.
What’s your best advice?
Read voraciously, in as many genres as you can. Let yourself be inspired by all kinds of art. And live. I believe artists and writers become better with time. But if you asked for a true recommendation, as a must-read, I would say The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. My favorite part is where the direction to “omit needless words” is repeated three times.
Why do you write?
I write as a form of self-expression, fulfillment, transcendence, healing, and to transmute pain and experience into beauty. The search for fulfillment is a recurrent theme in my life, and it’s the title of the thesis I wrote about Henry James. For me, poetry is a process of self-revelation, an exploration of hidden dimensions in myself, and also a way to express the profound experience of the fundamental interconnection of all in the universe. Writing is cathartic as it extends a search for peace, for serenity, and is rooted in a desire to transcend and reconcile the fundamental duality I see in life. Ultimately, I seek expansion of consciousness.
Has translating the work of other writers had an influence on your own work?
Everything I read influences my own work. And everything I translate. I’ve translated an essay from Christiane Singer’s book N’oublie pas les chevaux écumants du passé, which was published in Asymptote. Her writing is powerful, passionate, and imbued with the sacred. It is lucid and sharp, a challenge to conformity.
I love Jean-Claude Renard’s poetry and have a great spiritual affinity with him. His is a world I can inhabit. I become the richer for it. He writes that “I” by essence becomes “Other,” that is to say “someone who not only holds the power to fulfill his or her intimate self more and more intensely, but also at the same time, can turn a singular into a plural by creating a work that causes, in its strictest individuality, a charge emotionally alive and glowing with intensity.” In that sense the work’s artistry affects others and helps their own transformation.
Learning new languages creates synapses in the brain. They inform my writing, consciously, and unconsciously. All kinds of associations come to mind when I read or write. Translation is a form of creation. I write to bring forth the treasures hidden within. I create to expand my consciousness and extend time. I create to reinvent myself.
What are you reading right now?
I always read several books at the same time. I recommend Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman, one of the best books I’ve read in recent years, and Woman in Battle Dress by the renowned novelist Antonio Benítez-Rojo, beautifully translated by Jessica Powell, which I was lucky to discover while judging the PEN Center USA award in translation. Also Mestizos Come Home! (Making and Claiming Mexican American Identity) by Robert Con Davis-Undiano is very important and timely.
I recently returned from a historic trip to Cuba, with Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Arthur Sze, David St. John, Elizabeth Hodges, John FitzGerald, Jane Hirshfield, Claudia Keelan, and Narlan Matos. We were part of the first delegation of American poets since the Revolution to be invited to participate in the International Poetry Festival of Havana. It was a very intense eight days, filled with readings, panels, and discussions. I discovered many Cuban poets and writers I didn’t know, like Soleida Ríos, Pierre Bernet Ferrand, Basilia Papastamatú, Eliseo Diego, Josefina de Diego, Mirta Yáñez, Edel Morales and Alberto Peraza Ceballlos, among many others, and had the pleasure of meeting several whose work I admire, like Roberto Fernández Retamar, Miguel Barnet, and Nancy Morejón.
From that trip, I’m particularly enjoying Escritos al Revés by Soleida Ríos and Caliban y otro ensayos by Roberto Fernández Retamar. During one scrumptious dinner, Robert Hass and I were sharing novels we love, and he recommended A Train Through Time by Elizabeth Farnsworth, which I just ordered and look forward to reading.
Would you like to share a project(s) you are currently working on or have just completed?
My review of Stephen Yenser’s superb collection Stone Fruit just came out in The London Magazine. Also, for quite some time I’ve been translating the poetry of my father José Manuel Cardona from Spanish, and Salmon Poetry will publish this translation, Birnam Wood, next year. You can read some of these poems in World Literature Today, Waxwing Magazine, and Periódico de Poesía, among other places.
Currently I’m translating several books by Franco-Syrian poet Maram Al-Masri and co-translating another by Al-Masri with Marc Vincenz. Editor Elizabeth Hodges and I are putting together an anthology of Cuban poets for her online journal, also to be published in print by MadHat Press, to which I’m contributing several translations.
I’ve just started work on the next issue of the international magazine Levure Littéraire, and I’m preparing an interview with Dorianne Laux for Plume Poetry Journal. Finally, I’m co-producing the documentary Pablo Neruda: The People’s Poet with Mark Eisner.
What is the greatest compliment that you ever received about your writing?
It always touches me deeply when readers share that my books resonate with them. Once, after a reading, I received a call by someone who had found one my books on the street. I had signed it to a woman who then lost it, and he found it and kept it. I had included my phone number with a note to the woman, and he called to say that the book saved his life. I’ll never forget this.
What is your favorite thing to do when you should be writing, but just can’t find the motivation?
I use music a lot as inspiration. I’ll open a book at a random page and use the first thing I read as a trigger. Or I’ll take a walk in nature or by the ocean, or do yoga to clear my head. I also revisit notes that I’ve taken on notepads or little pieces of paper.
Why did you decide to join AWP?
My first publisher, Red Hen Press, invited me to lead a translation panel at AWP in Austin in 2006. I had the best time and connected with so many people. Everybody is there for that purpose, and it’s easy to meet like-minded souls and make new friends. It’s a great way to break the feeling of isolation one can get as a writer not affiliated with an institution. I’ve attended every year since and strengthened the friendships while making new ones.
What is your favorite line from a book?
There are so many. I love these lines from Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons: “After the hurricane walks a silence / deranged, white as the white helmets of / government surveyors looking into roofless / shacks.”
From E.M. Forster's classic novel Howards End I love: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”
Henry James is one my very favorite writers and he has so many good lines. I always remember these from his masterpiece The Ambassadors: “Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t matter what you do in particular, so long as you have had your life. If you haven’t had that, what have you had?”
Because there are so many, I use them as epigraphs in my poems, so they accompany me this way, too, and I can share them with the world. It’s a way to pay homage to the poets I love and enrich my poetry thanks to this ongoing conversation.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
I have many, but one that remains engraved in my soul is dancing with Willis Barnstone. I always enjoy catching up with him. We start speaking in one language and by the time our conversation is over we’ve switched to five more! We've gone from English to French and Spanish, Greek and German and back. He’s so prolific and has more energy than anyone I know. Also, the bats and grackles in Austin! It was quite a sight witnessing the nightly ritual of thousands of bats flying from under the bridge each sunset!
How has AWP helped you in your career and/or creative endeavors?
Creatively I’m always discovering new writing and opening myself up to new possibilities. AWP is a fabulous connector. It’s welcomed me into a huge community of poets, writers, editors and publishers. I’ve made so many friends and discovered great books, magazines, and publishers from all over the US, as well as other countries. It’s been very inspiring and has led to many serendipitous collaborations.
The annual Conference & Bookfair is also a wonderful opportunity to see my publishers, as they all live far away, and to reconnect with friends and colleagues. As such it’s always a very intense experience. I have beautiful memories from all the conferences I’ve attended (twelve now), from fantastic panels or readings to glorious shared meals.
I’ve also participated in AWP’s Writer to Writer program as a Mentor last fall and found it extremely enriching. I highly recommend the program, whether as Mentor or Mentee.
What are your thoughts on engaging in the translation of another writer’s creative work? What are the responsibilities and/or privileges of a translator?
For the last ten years, I’ve led translation panels at AWP addressing the question from different perspectives. At AWP Tampa, with Sidney Wade, Hilary Kaplan, Christopher Merrill, and Willis Barnstone, we’ll tackle “The Glories of Impossible Translations” and discuss whether one can ever truly translate the likes of Sappho, Lorca, or Baudelaire in their sophistication, cleverness, and verbal music. This past AWP in DC, our panel asked: Does the language we speak shape the way we think, our reality, our world, our dreams? Do more words mean more thoughts? Can we think about things we don’t have words for? When I read Beyond Elsewhere (Plus loin qu’ailleurs, Editions du Cygne) by Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac, I fell in love with the book and was compelled to translate it (Beyond Elsewhere, White Pine Press). So the panel I presented in Minneapolis was titled: Translation as a Love Affair: Did you ever fall in love with a book? So much that you felt the need to translate it?
One of the responsibilities of the translator is to capture the essence and music while remaining faithful to the original. “Translation is a kind of transubstantiation; one poem becomes another,” writes Anne Michaels. Translation is a craft. It is also an inspired act, a negotiation. To quote Henry James, “we work in the dark,” from that intuitive place. It becomes an act of revelation, the ultimate act of sympathy.
I recently co-translated (with Yves Lambrecht) Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings into French for WhitmanWeb. It was commissioned by the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. It was a ten-month long endeavor. The Civil War Writings retrace Whitman’s writing and service as a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War. We also translated the in-depth commentaries that scholars Ed Folsom and Christopher Merrill wrote for each text. The poems and texts are thus bookended with a foreword and afterword. They explore how writing and imagery can be used to examine war, conflict, trauma, and reconciliation in Whitman’s time and today. It was incredibly moving to translate his work. At times it made me cry. They resonate so much with the current climate.
Poetry opens a window into the subconscious and allows us into another reality in ourselves. It opens and reconnects us to other dimensions within ourselves that remain closed to the conscious mind. It awakens and nourishes the imagination, is a door to the unknown, mysterious, unexpected, miraculous. It leaves us astonished, in the presence of the divine. Poets, literary translators, and artists assume the roles of intermediaries, technicians, magicians, shamans, and alchemists. With translation we create an ongoing dialogue around art and culture. When you understand and know other cultures, you don’t fear the other. There is no other. We are all humans inhabiting this planet, with our differences. We have more in common than not. We should be the shepherds of Earth. Translation is necessary to know oneself—to know where one comes from. Every language is a key into the psyche of its people. Through translation, we bring cultures together, we create bridges. Becoming familiar with another culture transcends otherness.
There are always things one language can do and the other can’t. And so the process is a bit like that of a detective searching for clues and of a mathematician looking to solve a problem.
In my interview with John Ashbery for Le Mot Juste, which was also published by the Poetry Foundation, I commented that French leaves less room for ambiguity. It’s a very precise language. So is English but English is more fluid. Interestingly, Ashbery responded that he needs “sort of a sfumato effect to hide in or to find material in.” Languages stimulate the mind in different ways. I’m naturally curious about other cultures. Having been raised in a very international environment makes me a citizen of the world. Both my parents were immigrants. My mother left Greece to move to France. My father escaped the Franco dictatorship so as not to be jailed for his writing. That’s how my parents met. I am an immigrant too. After moving to the US, I became an American citizen. So I’m keenly aware about not fitting into molds. I wasn’t the typical French girl growing up. At home, all my parents’ friends were foreigners. My dad worked for the United Nations in Geneva and Paris, among other places, and his colleagues were mostly from South America or Spain, but also from Iran and other countries. I literally grew up in the U.N., which is a microcosm of the world. So very early on I would transition between languages and countries. It’s harder to be nationalistic when you’re made of several countries. It opens up your mind.