Geoffrey Brock: An Interview With Serena Agusto-Cox

April 2, 2010

Poet & Translator Geoffrey Brock

You’ve done quite a bit of translation work, what draws you to translation and what languages do you work most in?

I began translating as a way of reading and studying Italian poets I was interested in. It’s the closest kind of reading. It was also one of the ways I taught myself to write poetry. It’s a wonderful apprentice activity for poets, though of course it can also be a lasting part of a poet’s vocation.

Could you explain the process of choosing poems for translation and the difficulties you find in translating others’ work? Have you always worked in translation?

I suppose I’ve been translating almost as long as I’ve been seriously
writing. As for the “process of choosing”: I think that phrase implies
something systematic, whereas for me it usually seems to be something that just happens or doesn’t happen. Sometimes I’m provoked to translate by dissatisfaction with an existing translation. But usually a poem just grabs me in a certain way and I start jotting notes in the margin, or I start reflexively wondering how I might render a certain line. It proceeds from there.

Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

Hmm. Obsession is a tricky word, isn’t it? Isn’t writing a sort of
obsession for most writers? If you mean non-literary obsessions, I
suppose one of my more unusual interests is herpetology, which I began studying in earnest at the age of 8 or so, under the tutelage of one
Jim Stevenson, who has become mildly infamous in recent years for
executing feral cats in Texas. I have been particularly interested of late in fossorial snakes, since we seem to have a lot of them here in Fayetteville: ringnecks, midland browns, worm snakes, etc. My son and I maintain a terrarium full of various little critters–snails, centipedes, millipedes, worms–in addition to the various snakes who spend a few months enjoying our hospitality before being returned to our yard.

Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

I’ve never had much interest in “inspirational” writing books. Do they help? I do love, and collect, prosody manuals. I’m always fascinated by who believes in spondees and who doesn’t. (I do.)

Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

I just don’t think it’s true that poetry — good poetry — is inaccessible. Certainly anyone who is capable of reading Dickens with pleasure is also capable of reading Dickinson with pleasure. Perhaps the only way for poets to dispel the myth that poetry is inaccessible is by writing more good poetry.

When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

I don’t generally listen to music while writing. I’m afraid I don’t
have much in the way of regular writing habits — which is probably a
very bad thing.

In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?

People tend to gravitate toward people with similar interests, and
writers are no different. Many of my friends are writers. But in recent years parenthood has often trumped writerhood — now that I have kids I spend a lot of time around other parents. (Some of whom, as it happens, are also writers.)

What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

I’m working on two projects: I’m finishing up a large anthology of
20th-century Italian poetry that will come out from FSG next year, and
I’m working on my second collection of poems, tentatively titled VOICES BRIGHT FLAGS. I hope to finish that in a year or so, but who knows?

Here’s a poem from Geoffrey Brock that appeared in 32 Poems:

Exercitia Spiritualia

We met, like lovers in movies, on a quay
Beside the Seine. I was reading Foucault
And feeling smart. She called him an assault
On sense, and smiled. She was from Paraguay,

Was reading Saint Ignatius. Naivete
Aroused her, so she guided me to Chartres
And Sacre Coeur, to obscure theatres
For passion plays – she was my exegete.

In Rome (for Paris hadn’t been enough)
We took a room, made love on the worn parquet,
Then strolled to Sant’Ignazio. Strange duet:
Pilgrim and pagan, gazing, as though through

That ceiling’s flatness, toward some epitome
Of hoped-for depth. I swore I saw a dome.

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