Q & A with David Shook on Poetry and Translation


Jack Little (Founding Editor of The Ofi Press magazine in Mexico) interviews David Shook (Founding Editor of Phoneme Media, a nonprofit media company that publishes literature in translation from languages including Isthmus Zapotec, Lingala, Mongolian, and Uyghur). Highlights of their conversation include Mexican poetry, translation, the place of location in poetry and Phoneme Media’s vision.

Recent books by African writers published by Phoneme Media include Inongo Vi Makome’s Natives (translated from Spanish) and Roland Rugero’s Baho! (translated from French).

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Heir to a dynasty of Texan megachurch pastors, David Shook chose the page over the cloth. His debut collection, Our Obsidian Tongues, was longlisted for the 2013 Dylan Thomas Prize, and his recent translations include work by Mario Bellatin, Tedi López Mills, and Víctor Terán. He served as Translator in Residence for the Poetry Parnassus in 2012, part of London’s Cultural Olympiad, featuring a poet from every participating olympic nation, where he premiered his covertly filmed short documentary Kilómetro Cero, about persecuted Equatorial Guinean poet Marcelo Ensema Nsang.
Shook lives in Los Angeles, where he serves as Founding Editor of Phoneme Media, a nonprofit media company that publishes literature in translation from languages including Isthmus Zapotec, Lingala, Mongolian, and Uyghur. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma and the University of Oxford, he’s visited over fifty countries performing his writing, and his work has been translated into a half-dozen languages. He’s a Contributing Editor to Ambit (UK), Bengal Lights (Bangladesh), and World Literature Today. Learn more at http://davidshook.net



How does your work as a translator impact upon your work as a poet?

My work as a translator isn’t so different from my work as a poet. They’re both types of writing, but in one I get to start with someone else’s language, which often makes the process more challenging than not. When I consider my own poetry I recognize the influence of many of the poets I’ve translated and read in translation. My first collection shows the influence of the Mexican poets Hugo Hiriart and Francisco Hernández, for example, as well as the Classical Nahuatl poets. My poetry preoccupies itself with a lot of the same questions that translation brings up—representation and voice, for example.

Translation is the ultimate workshop, I think, an opportunity to study with the masters, to attempt to understand what they’re doing at the level of the phrase, sentence, and even syllable.


Why do you translate indigenous poets’ work? How has it been received in Mexico and abroad?

Almost all of my translation projects begin as a result of curiosity. I never set out to translate indigenous Mexican poetry. As a student of linguistics, I was very interested in the indigenous languages of the Americas—in college I studied Kiowa, for example, and later lived in a Central Mexican village call San Agustín Oapan, where I studied Guerrero Nahuatl. But the first poem I ever translated was a poem I came across in an anthology. Víctor Terán’s “Your Name.” I still remember that first reading vividly. I set out to translate it as soon as I finished it.


Only your name slips
over my tongue
like a fish between the hands
of a fisherman.

That was when I was 22 years old.


Which indigenous Mexican poets would you recommend for readers not aware of the contemporary poetry scene in Mexico?

There are so many great poets, even for readers who are aware of the contemporary poetry scene in Mexico. Of the younger generation, I particularly like Mikeas Sánchez, who writes in Zoque, and Enriqueta Lunez, who writes in Tsotsil. Clare Sullivan’s translation of Natalia Toledo’s book The Black Flower, which I recently published, is a gorgeous, sensual book, and one of the few book-length works of indigenous Mexican poetry available in English.


What are the most explicit similarities and differences that you perceive between contemporary UK and Mexican poetry?

Both contemporary UK and contemporary Mexican poetry are such broad categories that I’m hesitant to identify explicitly similarities and differences. I will say that both poetries have descended from amazing literary traditions, and that each features an exciting new generation of writers that are challenging a wide range of conventions, everything from subject matter and form to how poems are shared. And I guess they both share you, Jack!


Please tell us about Phoneme Media and its objectives. Where do you see the project in the future?

Phoneme Media is a nonprofit media company that publishes literature in translation. We publish books from a wide range of languages—everything from the indigenous Mexican languages I’ve mentioned to Uyghur, Lingala, and Esperanto. I want to open up the conversation, to broaden our readers’ worlds. This year we’ll publish the first ever Burundian novel to be translated into English (Baho!, by Roland Rugero, translated from the French by Christopher Schaefer) and the first book of Mongolian poetry to be published in the United States (The End of the Dark Era, by Tseveendorjin Oidov, translated from the Mongolian by Simon Wickhamsmith), as well as our first two graphic novels and the first two books in our new imprint featuring exiled writers from the Pittsburgh nonprofit City of Asylum. In addition to our books, we produce short literary films, from places like Bangladesh, Cuba, and Equatorial Guinea. Those are available to watch on our website.

As to the future—I’m looking forward to publishing an ever wider catalogue of languages and literatures. I already have some very exciting titles lined up for 2017, which feature some of the most exciting women writing today, women like Ksenia Buksha and Spomenka Štimec.


How have the books published by Phoneme Media so far been received in Mexico and elsewhere?

I’ve heard a lot of praise from Mexican readers and writers, which has been encouraging. As a small enterprise, your encouragement is what keeps us going. I know that our anthology of indigenous poetry was well received in its contributors’ communities, where several poets have told me they’ve used it as a tool to inspire the youth to continue learning and speaking their native languages. Our series of Mario Bellatin books has been praised for its design, which features illustrations by Zsu Szkurka and design by Scott Arany.

We have two collections of Mexican poetry still to come out this year, both of them very different, and I’m excited to see how they’re received. One is Tedi López Mills’ Against the Current, translated by Wendy Burk, and the other is Roberto Castillo Udiarte’s Lizard-Tail Blues, translated by Anthony Seidman. The first of those, López Mills’ rhythmic, enchanting meditations on water and life, comes out in April, and the second in the fall.


In your collection Our Obsidian Tongues, what image of Mexico do you create?

I’m not sure that I’m entirely conscious of the image of Mexican that I create. In some sense, it’s the Mexico of my childhood as an expatriate, as someone coming to terms with their own personal and cultural identities. The collection employs quite a bit of collage, of impersonation, of recounting stories and experiences, both my own and those I’d heard recounted by others.

In a lot of ways I still see Mexico City with the eyes of a child, which is perhaps why it has inspired so much of my poetry. We must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven, and I think that’s true of poetry too.

David3David Shook

As a poetry reviewer yourself, what do you most appreciate in a poetry collection?

I’m most immediately drawn to language, to experimentation and play. I’m interested in the evolution of language—both unconsciously and consciously—and its social function. I like collections that work as collections, rather than just anthologies of unrelated, “best hits” poems. But perhaps what I like most of all is to be surprised, to be un-bored, if you will.


What do you enjoy most about being involved in poetry and literature?

The people. Some of the best, craziest, kindest, weirdest, wildest, and most generous people in the world are involved in poetry and literature. I love being able to work professionally with people I admire—established figures like Jerome Rothenberg and Eliot Weinberger, who were both involved in Like a New Sun, as well as up-and-comers like Hilary Kaplan and Anna Rosenwong, translators of Angélica Freitas’ Rilke Shake and Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, respectively.


What role does location have in your poetry?

A lot of my poetry is grounded in physical locations, but I think that that’s in part because our language is so grounded in physical locations. I guess I see location as an opportunity—a lens through which to explore the experience of being human. The more I travel, the more I see how different people and places are, the more I also see how similar we are, how much the same the world is. That’s interesting to me.


To what extent is poetry a solitary affair?

Poetry, to me, is an immensely sociable affair. Of course there is some solitude involved, since that’s a productive space for reflection. But I write (most of my poetry) in transit. I’ve written a lot on planes. Lately I’ve written a lot while walking or hiking. Moving the body is a great way to experiment with meter and alliteration. It can become obsessive, my reciting a line or a phrase like a mantra for weeks at a time. On one recent hike it was the first two lines to a poem I’m still working on: “This Halloween I’m an Ortolan bunting. / Makeshift, sure, with two forties and port.”


What are you currently reading?

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of Attila József and Nazim Hikmet, translating Joaquín Pasos and Jorge Eduardo Eielson. Short stories by Adam O’Riordan, Luis Felipe Fabre’s new chapbook, Sor Juana and Other Monsters, translated by John Pluecker. And a lot of manuscripts I’m considering for Phoneme.





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