Saturday, January 9

Fluff the pillows of the past, poke the embers of the days to come ...

Russian poet Vera Pavlova spends her time between New York and Moscow, where she was born in 1963. She has published 14 collections of verse in Russian and is now scheduled to have her first book of poems translated into English released by Knopf on January 19th.

One of the perhaps few good things about being ignorant is that it prepares me for many happy discoveries every day. I was completely unacquainted with Vera Pavlova and her work until a few days ago when I came across an article by Mike Melia on the always-worth-a-look-and-a-listen PBS Art Beat blog. There you can find links to her website (can find one here, too) and to some of her poems that have appeared in Tin House and The New Yorker, a few accompanied by audio of the poet herself reciting the pieces. I particularly liked the video interview with Pavlova and recommend it. Follow the link, I cannot embed it here.

In the interview she recounts how she began her artistic life studying music and originally planned to become a composer. These designs were swept away by a new and better one ushered in with the birth of her first child. For, as she explains in the video, she first began writing poetry in the maternity ward and was born into her new life, in which “I turned out to be a poet”, at the same time as she was bringing her daughter into this world.

I find her (true not metaphorical) story of being born as a poet at the same time as she gave birth to her daughter to be truly captivating. Labor pains and lyrical pangs.

And for personal reasons I am also quite charmed by the idea that her translator (and interpreter in the interview) is her husband, Steven Seymour. You see, I make my living as a translator, but certainly of nothing as enthralling, enriching or exhilarating as poetry (nor as maddening or baffling either). I translate legal and financial documents from Spanish to English (now working on an analysis of the tax law implications of transfer pricing rules as they apply to the Spanish operations of a major international insurance group — has a poetic ring to it, don’t you think?). It is boring, but I am not complaining; it pays the bills and I am all too well aware that dedicating oneself to translating poetry requires two indispensable conditions: talent and another source of income.

Vera Pavlova and Steven Seymour (I assume ATA cap is from the American Translators Association). Photo from her website.
Anyway, back to the interview… Pavlova recalls that there are numerous instances of poets married to poets, but none, as far as she knows, of a female poet and husband translator. Through interpreter-husband Seymour, she explains that “this gives many advantages to the translator”, because “he gets to translate poems that we’ve lived through together”. Indeed, she explains that the upcoming collection of verse (If There is Something to Desire: One Hundred Poems) is “our first child together”.

In another post I will try to explore my feelings and thoughts about the utter impossibility and pressing need to translate poetry, but for now I will leave you with some of Pavlova’s poems, accompanied by photos I have downloaded from the almost too good to be true Onexposure photography website.

First, the title poem to the upcoming book …

If there is something to desire,
there will be something to regret.
If there is something to regret,
there will be something to recall.
If there is something to recall,
there was nothing to regret.
If there was nothing to regret,
there was nothing to desire

A beast in winter
A beast in winter,
a plant in spring,
an insect in summer,
a bird in autumn.
The rest of the time I am a woman.

Against the current of blood
Against the current of blood
passion struggles to spawn;
against the current of speech
the world breaks the oar;
against the current of thought
the sails of dreams glide;
dog-paddling like a child, I swim
against the current of tears.

I am in love, hence free to live
I am in love, hence free to live
by heart, to ad-lib as I caress.
A soul is light when full,
heavy when vacuous.
My soul is light. She is not afraid
to dance the agony alone,
for I was born wearing your shirt,
will come from the dead with that shirt on

Untitled (as far as I know)
We are rich: we have nothing to lose.
We are old: we have nowhere to rush.
We shall fluff the pillows of the past,
poke the embers of the days to come,
talk about what means the most,
as the indolent daylight fades.
We shall lay to rest our undying dead:
I shall bury you, you will bury me.

Photography. Photo of Vera Pavlova is from her website.
The photos accompanying the poems are all from the Onexposure site (in order):
- I lean against the wind by Radu Voinea
- Wild horses by kamenf
- The end of another day by Ursula I Abresch
- Fallen by slavinai
- Untitled by Tsvetomir Stanivoev


  1. Very simplistic... I like it. There's a flair of Neruda during his industrialism phase. I'll definitely check her out.

  2. Pavlova's comletely new to me. Thanks for the introduction. Her poetry would be wonderful set to music. It has a spare, rhymic quality.

    That past fabulous pic reminds me of the final scene in "The Third Man"!

  3. I lisen to NPR all the time, but don't know her. I really like her work, and the photos you used to accompany some of these is stunning. Thanks for the intro to her work. Lovely post!

  4. I must have missed this PBS video. Thanks for posting it. Too bad I cannot read Vera in her original language. I always find it must more rewarding to read a poet in their mother language. I have a few books of Neruda and St John of the Cross poetry with the original poems and the English version printed side by side, and reading them that way brings forth a different and new layer of interpreation to the words.
    I too translate many different documents from Portuguese, English, and French into English, but poetry and literary prose are rather challenging fields to translate. One almost needs to put oneself in the skin of the writer/poet, which is rather impossible as you end up bringing a big part of your own experience to the translation of what you read.

    Great post!

  5. Hi, Isabel. You are so right that translating poetry and literary prose poses some nearly impossible challenges. I especially liked what Vera Pavlova says about her husband-translator living through the poems together with her. After all, when a poem stirs something in us, don't we all feel that the poet has succeeded in making us live through the poem with him or her? And more than living through a poem with the poet, translating a poem is, indeed, as you say, like trying to put yourself in the poet's skin.

    When I read translated poetry I much prefer to have the original side by side with the translation, and this holds even if I have little idea of the original language. There is much I wanted to say about this on the Pavlova post, but have left it for another day. I look forward to being in touch on the subject.

  6. Interesting...I have never tried to read a poem with the original side by side but in a language I don't know. I'll have to try that...

  7. Back for a moment to thank for the "follow" of my main blog:) About the husband translator: I recognize this in my own family - my (adult) children always "know" what the meaning is of my painting -and they are my best critics, because for them the halo is removed:)

  8. Dear Alchemist, many thanks! Rarely professional critics go into such detail and handle poetry as sensitively and thoroughly as you did, despite the fact that they are paid for it. Incidentally, Steven Seymour got to translate in his day plenty of matters unrelated to poetry: for example, the letters ATA on his baseball cap stand for "Anti-Terrorist Assistance".
    Warmly, Vera Pavlova and Steven Seymour

  9. Dear Vera and Steven, a real delight to hear from you and know that you liked the post. I'm touched. I hope to offer some more thoughts soon on the challenges of translating poetry.

  10. Vera knocks me out. I didn't know her either. My soul feels lighter now. I'll go to the interview and her site next.

    I occasionally help my Portuguese friend João with his own verses in English. Sometimes he writes them first in Portuguese, then translates. Sometimes he writes in English. Either way, it's challenging to help, because translation is interpretation. (And so is workshopping a poem, in a way. And being in a relationship. Oh . . . constant interpretation.) I feel you must know and understand something of the poet to do it right. Imagine being married to your translator, and yes, feeling that you'd written poems together.

  11. Oh dear, to follow up on my previous comment: I don't mean that I know Portuguese, I don't. Only help with the English part.

  12. Thank you so very much for the fyi on your post about Vera Pavlova and for the PBS link.

    Her poetry is wonderful. And how lovely that she left you a comment here. (Much to my surprise Wisconsin's PL did the same after I published my Monday Muse column this week, and now we've exchanged e-mails.)

    I will have to catch up with your posts, and am sorry I did not know of your blog earlier. I'll be sure to tweet it to my literary friends.

    P.S. I know what you mean about work and paying the bills. I was an editor under AID contracts and private companies with government contracts, and then spent almost 25 years with an employment law publisher. I also was a reporter back in the days.


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