Friday, January 28, 2011

Anne Carson: Translator's Mind, Artist's Brain

I sat on the couch, laptop on lap, watching a video of Anne Carson from 2000, borrowed from the American Poetry Archives. It's my assignment this week to do a presentation about her. But before I tell you about what she read and what she said, a little backtracking. 

Carson's name started seeping into my life first via an article about her latest book Nox in the New York Review of Books, then later, when I was speaking with CCA professor Betsy Davids, who told me that Anne had been a Writer in Residence at California College of the Arts in the Fall 2001. She said that Carson had worked on an artist's book with Kim Anno (also professor at CCA) at the College of St. Benedict/Saint John's University with design and printing by Mary Jo Pauly, Minnesota Center for Book Arts director and alumna of CSB. Anne and Kim created a second book collaboration in 2007-08 called Sleep, of which I could only find a few pictures. The CCA connection was brought to my attention again when I met composer and fellow professor Guillermo Galindo who mentioned working with Anne on a musical piece, which was also section of what would be her book Decreation. So I feel drawn to her through all of these connections.

Carson is a translator, but resists labels. She is also a scholar of Greek and Latin, a classicist, an artist, a writer, a Canadian, a MacArthur fellow in 2000, a professor at University of Michigan, formerly at McGill University and more. In listening to her talk, I can hear her "art brain" speaking (I think I got this term from Bob Glück). Even her writing is visual. In one interview she says, “I don’t know what I do yet. I know that I have to make things. And it’s a convenient form we have in our culture, the book…." She also says she is not interested in being classified, "You write what you want to write in the way it has to be." Sounds very similar to how in the book art world we say whatever the book wants.

She also always thought of herself as an artist until she was in her twenties. Her first book, Short Talks, was a book of poetry which evolved out of her drawings. The poetry emerged as she titled her drawings and found that her titles became longer and longer until she decided to do away with the drawings altogether. This seems like it would be a good way to essentially trick yourself into writing if it was not one of your usual activities. Turns out she preferred writing to drawing, after all, but she brought her artistic sensibility along with her into her word work. Her feel for materials is evident in this quote from the Paris Review.
In surfaces, perfection is less interesting. For instance, a page with a poem on it is less attractive than a page with a poem on it and some tea stains. Because the tea stains add a bit of history…After all, texts of ancient Greeks come to us in wreckage and…the combination of layers of time that you have when looking at a papyrus that was produced in the third century BC and then copied and then wrapped around a mummy for a couple hundred years and then discovered and put in a museum…and brought out again and photographed and put in a book. All those layers add up to more and more life. You can approximate that in your own life. Stains on clothing.
But the one particular nugget that caught my attention in the video was how she, as a translator for half her life, reads. In a bilingual edition of a book, which she prefers to read when the text is not originally in English, she explains that the original language is placed on the left and the English translation on the right. She relates the story of reading an Ed McBain mystery novel and finding a passage she didn't particularly like or understand. Her translator's mind automatically looked to the left page for the author's true meaning. Of course, it wasn't there.

But I think this has exciting possibilities for making books. What text would you place on the right? And what text would you place on the left to explain it? A character could seem sweet on the right, but really be devious on the left. Or text and image could replace text and text. It seems that if you know this about translations, you might explore it when you look at an artist's book. The concept of multiple meanings comes back to Carson's love for the layering of history with the present, both by way of words (translations) and materials (surfaces.) 

The new book, Nox, blends these layers. Carson overlaid her own loss of a brother who ran away, whom she had not seen in twenty-two years, and who died abroad with that of Catullus, the Roman poet who was living in Italy when his brother died in Troy (now part of Turkey). Catullus wrote a lament, which Carson took apart and reused, word by word, on the left side, placing her own writing and pieces of a letter written by her brother on the right. She incorporated photos and ephemera from their early life together to create a long accordion-folded unique artist's book, (Robert Currie came up the reproduction concept to preserve the feel of her original,  Rodrigo Corral designed the cover) which was then commercially printed as a facsimile. The part I wanted to read was on the right, but I looked to the left at the word and its definitions to find the deeper meaning of her text. It worked.

Anne Carson's Nox, 2010

Anne Carson has provocatively merged the weight of history and classical texts with the lyrical flow of fresh and creative work. She has found an interesting balance between relating information and creating a new way of seeing. In her work we read with our own artists' brains.

The accordion stretches out about forty feet, which is somewhat long for a book.


Ian LeTourneau said...

you might be interested in poet/philosopher Jan Zwicky's work. she has a few non-fiction titles where she has her thoughts and ideas on the right and quotations, musical scores, etc. on the left.

I loved Nox. Easily my favourite Carson book.

Alisa said...

Thanks for your comments and the recommendation! I immediately looked online and found a piece called "Open Strings" from Songs for Relinquishing the Earth (1998) which was quite magical and transporting.

For anyone else interested, it was here:

Now I'm going to look for her books.

Thanks, Ian!

Ian LeTourneau said...

interestingly enough Songs for Relinquishing the Earth began as a homemade book: she made a few copies and circulated to friends. I think they urged her to publish it, and when it appeared, it won Canada's biggest literary prize at the time, the Governor General's Award.

Her current publisher is a small press named Gaspereau Press, based in Kentville, Nova Scotia. This press does everything in house (except make their own paper, although they've recently experimented): they have old fashion printing presses, they bind and print right in their shop. Check for more info. Because of the value they place on design, aesthetics and quality, they attract the best writers in Canada. Their books are beautiful. For their 10th anniversary, they published two anthologies, one of poetry and one of prose, which would be great places to get an idea of what they publish. I promise you won't be dissapointed. I should also add a disclaimer that I have published a chapbook with them and I am included in the poetry anthology, but ask any Canadian poet about the press and you will get nothing but high praise.