An Interview with Marilyn Hacker
An interview with Marilyn Hacker, as conducted by KC Orcutt for
KCO: How does fluency in French and in English influence your approach to writing, especially
in relation to form and in rhythm?
MH: Sometimes forming a phrase expressing an idea or an opinion, I am drawn to one language
over the other. But I don’t, in general, “hear” French when I’m writing poetry in English. French
forms are to a great degree syllabic rather than metrical: you can find a great variety of metrical
possibilities in the twelve-syllable alexandrine. There are many many fewer poets working in
fixed forms in French than there are in English (and of course I include British, Irish, Canadian,
Australian, West Indian poets among the Anglophones, and Maghrebian, Canadian,
Martiniquais, Middle Eastern – et de suite – poets among the Francophones), or than there are in
Russian, Hungarian or Spanish, though there are some fascinating resistances to the hegemony of
vers libre, ranging from Jacques Roubaud and Jacques Réda to Marie Etienne and Valérie
KCO: Do you separate the two cultures in your mind? How do you decide when to mix in slang
terms or cultural phrases into a piece? Do literal translations or details ever take control or
distract your writing?
MH: I very much like the disjunction created by demotic language in a poem, especially in a
metered poem (some contemporary poets tend to forget that almost all popular or folk poetry, in
all languages, not to mention song lyrics, are metered). Contemporary poets as divergent as
Marilyn Nelson, who is African American and Tony Harrison, who is white working-class
northern English, have interjected passages in dialect or slang into metered poems to great effect.
And just as I appreciate specificity of detail in a 17th or 19th century poem, however, or because,
it places the poem in its time and place, I like that kind of detail in contemporary poems, my own
included. I think one of the reasons many contemporaries prefer 16th and 17th century British
poetry to a lot of 19th and 20th century pre-modernist work is precisely that (sometimes
“baroque”) attention to detail.
KCO: Have you ever translated your own work yourself? When did you begin working on
translations? How has working on translations influenced your own poetry?
MH: I’ve never translated my own work. My interest in translation dates back to the 1980s, and
had to do with very practical as well as amicable encounters with my opposite numbers: French
translators of poetry from English. The first of these, in 1986, was with Jean Migrenne, then a
teacher of English and American literature in classes préparatoires (for post-baccalauréat
students hoping to enter the Ecole Normale Supérieure) in Caen. Jean had been asked to do
almost all the translations for an anthology of “New York poets,” edited by a friend and
colleague, French poet Hughes Labrusse. He contacted me, in Paris, with some questions about
the two poems of mine to figure in the anthology. Several of the other poets included had not
responded to Jean’s letters – writers as disparate as Jane Cooper and Ron Padgett – and our
conversations, over various cups of coffee, extended lunches, telephone calls and letters,
extended to his questions on vocabulary, usage, form, connotation, in these poets’ work as well. I
permitted myself to make the observation that the presence of African American poets in a “New
York” anthology was crucial: this omission was corrected and the conversations continued over
the poems of, among others, Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Paris expatriate poet James
Then, in November 1989, I participated in a conference of French and American poets, with
Native American poetry as the subject of focus, in Grenoble. (The festival terminated with a
midnight Thanksgiving dinner for fifty in the town hall, with the mayor presiding, which may
have given the Native American poets several layers of irony to cut into with their turkey.)
As is usual at such events, there were readings every afternoon and evening. Many of the
American poets present were already working with French translators, and made bilingual
presentations. Fewer of the French poets had such alliances, and, since many of the Americans
were monoglot, this left the French poets’ work outside the space of exchange . I had been
pressed into service as simultaneous translator on several panels, which was probably what led
the poet Claire Malroux to ask me if I could, in haste, provide a rough translation of a sequence
she intended to read. The on-the-spot translation (done in a hotel room, pre-Internet, with no
dictionaries) served for the reading, but was far from true to the poem. But the poem itself, and
the process of translation, not on a contentious panel but alone at a desk with a poem, had
engaged me. Back in Paris, I continued to work on it, now with the aid of both a French/English
and a French dictionary, and with Claire Malroux’s published books of poems to aid my passage
into this poet’s verbal and imaginative landscape.
Perhaps if I had been more aware of Claire Malroux’s own status as a translator, I would have
had less temerity in rushing unprepared into her own text. That same year she had received a
significant prize for outstanding translation from the English for her collection of Emily
Dickinson’s poems; six years later she would receive the Grand Prix National de la Traduction
for her continuing work with Dickinson and other Anglophone poets. However, this also meant
that the poet whom I was translating (the enterprise soon went beyond one sequence) was the
most experienced mentor in the art one could imagine: quite apart from her own bilingualism,
and solid base in Greek and Latin, she knew as well as anyone what a translation could or could
not reproduce , whether this involved rhythm, connotation, or even echoes of other texts which
might or might not have resonance for readers in the receptor language. While we have never
translated “à deux” in either direction, translation has produced an ongoing dialogue about
language, poetic form, Baudelairean “correspondances,” both in relation to Claire Malroux’s
poems and my own, but also to subsequent translations of other poets from and into both
languages, by each of us. I have read Emily Dickinson’s poems with more intelligent attention in
the aftermath of a conversation about the translation of a dauntingly ambiguous word or the
import of the transition between stanzas. It has become clearer that many of the most intriguing
(and sometimes the simplest-appearing) poems are far from transparent in any easily explicable
way even to a native speaker/reader of their language, that reading itself is often an exercise in
KCO: Do you think translation, as a practice, should be taught in schools? What advice would
you give to someone interested or beginning to work on a translation?
MH: I think the best framework for teaching translation is that of language study: it ought at
least to be one of the options for students specializing in a language other than their mother
tongue. I think translation and the study of translation is also beneficial to student writers – AND
that student writers ought as a matter of course to study another language. Auden thought a
writing program ought to require one classical language and one modern foreign language.
KCO: In what way does translation, a practice that encourages thoroughness and precision and
involves the transcription of another’s consciousness, intersect with your poetry?
MH: Translation is always an excellent exercise in creating poetry with one’s own ego – and the
resonances of one’s own experiences or opinions – removed, while one attempts to be as aware
as possible of the resonances of the initial text. Yet it is working with the same raw material of
the “receptor language,” usually the translator’s mother tongue, and the translated poem ought to
(or at least to my mind it ought to) exist independently as a poem in its new language. So
translation gives the poet the opportunity to write poems s/he would otherwise never have
written – and syntactic structures, vocabulary, even thought processes found in the close reading
necessary for translation are often the jumping-off point of one’s own poems.
KCO: Can you describe the time when you first realized that creating was something you
absolutely had to do? Did you explore other styles of poetry or have you always been committed
to formal structures?
MH: My first two books have almost as many poems in open as in metrical forms, and the
poems I’ve chosen to translate have a wide variety of formal approaches. … I would say that
almost any poem worth of the name has a formal structure of some kind – not necessarily a
metrical form, or a received form, but a system of shape and sonority that is part of its raison
d’être. A poem is not the paraphrase of an anecdote or an essay! I’m not “committed” to any
kind of structure except the one that is leading me into the poem I’m writing.
KCO: How have the academic institutions you’ve studied at and worked for helped your career
as a poet?
MH: A salary and academic vacations… The work I’ve done that was most enriching for me as
a reader and writer was (and often still is) literary editing: in particular the four years I spent as
the editor in chief of the Kenyon Review, in constant contact with fiction writers, poets and
critics of many “schools,” styles and backgrounds, at every point in their development, from
senior poets like Hayden Carruth to the early work of Reginald Shepherd, Reetika Vazirani and
Carl Phillips. That was preceded by (unpaid) work as the editor of the feminist literary magazine
13th Moon (which had a subsequent incarnation at SUNY Albany) , which also created a literary
community around itself – a “virtual” community that existed largely in letters, and included
Alicia Ostriker, Julia Alvarez, Colleen McElroy, Toi Derricotte, writers translated from other
languages as well , like Nelida Piñon and Jocelyne François.
KCO: Do you think it’s important for established poets to connect with aspiring poets, or do
communities remain divided with experience gaps?
MH: I have a lot of interchange with younger poets, very few of whom were ever my students –
Jenny Factor is an exception. Others are Fady Joudah, Robin Kemp, Deema Shehabi , Julie
Enszer, Khaled Mattawa, Evie Shockley: poets with books, translations, essays, out in the world.
The literary communities I know of arise around either an aesthetic or one or more political
issues (which I find much more interesting): no way age- or experience-segregated. I had several
important friendships with emerging poets that formed when I was at the Kenyon Review –
Reginald Shepherd, Rafael Campo, Reetika Vazirani, whom I knew first through work that
arrived in manila envelopes. Editor/writer connections are less fraught that teacher-student ones
KCO: How has publishing poetry on the Internet affected poetry, or more specifically the
distribution of work? Do you foresee small presses becoming smaller or adapting to Internet
presences only? Do you think Quark would exist today as a blog, for example?
MH: Quark was a short-lived attempt by a commercial publisher to publish a literary-inflected
science fiction/speculative fiction mass-market book-form magazine –it had editors; it had
unsolicited and solicited submissions; it was copy-edited and proofread; it was distributed to
bookshops: it was nothing like a blog. (Even the mimeographed literary magazines of the period
had more editorial policy than blogs, the best of which are like excellent, extended, opinionated
columns not dependent on a print journal to house them.) The Kenyon Review still exists: like
many literary magazines, it now has an on-line component, but that’s in addition to the print
journal, and in a way exists as a superior form of publicity for it. I believe 13th Moon had an online
only incarnation. I personally dislike reading poetry and fiction on a computer screen,
though I’m happy to discover writers – or books, or journals – that way. For me the next step is
to buy or borrow the book. So I selfishly hope small presses do not become smaller, and that they
continue to use the Internet, not as an alternative to book publishing, but as a useful tool to make
themselves more widely known. (I also hope that independent booksellers are able to make better
use of the Internet to reach a larger public, rather than its being the cause of their demise.)
KCO: What are you currently working on?
MH: Another book of my own; a couple of translation projects (the next scheduled translation
collections are Amina Saïd, who is French-Tunisian, and Rachida Madani, who is Moroccan, but
writes in French). I am attempting to learn Arabic, which takes up a lot of time!
KCO: What advice do you give for emerging poets?
MH: Read a lot. Learn another language. Get out of the university.