An Interview with Aaron Poochigian
By Traci O'Dea
Traci O’Dea (Associate Editor, Smartish Pace): How has translating Sappho affected your own poetry?
Aaron Poochigian: I had always wanted each line of my poetry to be songlike and ravishing. Now, after having lived with Sappho for about two years, I have a better sense of what that means. But I should be more specific about her influence. Many of Sappho’s poems give the reader the impression that he or she is eavesdropping on a private conversation, as in the following fragment:
As you are dear to me go find a younger
Bed as your due.
I can’t stand being the old one any longer,
Living with you.
I now readily slip into the conversational mode in my own work. Sappho, in fact, is credited with pioneering the “personal” in poetry, partly because she gives the reader this window into the intimate. She also makes frequent use of what I call “choral” expression—that is, the speaker as a first person plural “we” representing a group of people. I now often write poems in “group voices.” Perhaps the poem “The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis” is the best evidence of her influence on my work.
The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis
Death is an evil—so the gods have judged:
Had it been good, they too would die.
Petty as we are but more beautiful,
The goddesses could only squabble
Over a gaudy bauble
And call us dull.
But we the drab mothers, the wedding-planners,
Stood aloof and shrugged at their bad manners.
The world flipped upside-down: though bound for Hades,
We snobbed Heaven’s Empress and the fancy ladies.
Gods were like mortals, mortals like the gods—
We paid them back in condescending nods.
They won all, though, and all we lost
By dying rankles
Our ghostly bosoms: tossed
Tresses, jangling bangles, dancing ankles.
(first published in Arion, winter 2009, Vol. 16, No. 3, p. 12)
TO: What insights have you gained into the poet herself by translating her work?
AP: The more time I spent with Sappho, the more I confirmed to myself that she is one of the greatest lyric poets ever. The erotic poems are, of course, to die for. I can think of no body of work that is, well, hotter, sexier than hers, and yet we do not find one explicit reference to sex anywhere in the poems and fragments. I also came to admire her versatility. For a poet famous for the “personal,” Sappho has a very effective public voice. We have a wide range of poems that were composed for performance at weddings, funerals and religious festivals. In the wedding songs, for example, we learn that she has a ribald sense of humor, but still no explicit reference to sex. I, too, have a number of wedding poems.
It’s interesting that we are sort of working backward through the origins of poetry in the West. Whereas “public” poets like Homer came first and then “personal” poets like Archilochus and Sappho later carved out a private space from themselves from the epic tradition, we have millions of “personal” contemporary poets but little to nothing in the way of “public” poetry. In fact, when editors come across that sort of thing, they tend not to know what to do with it. I would love to see more poets acting as emcees, eulogists or priests.
TO: Are you working on any translations right now? Do you translate from any other languages? Modern Greek? Want to translate some Cavafy for me?
AP: I spent much of my 20s and early 30s on translation, and I am lucky in that nearly all of that work has been or will be published in book form. Excerpts from my translations of Aeschylus, Aratus, Apollonius and Moschus have just come out in Norton’s The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present [edited by Rachel Hadas and Robert Hass et al.] and Johns Hopkins Press will put out my translation of Aratus’ Phaenomena, with introduction and notes, in May of 2010. Hopkins is also considering my translations of three Greek tragedies, Aeschylus’ Persians, Seven Against Thebes and Suppliants, and I am optimistic that they will be out in the next year or so.
Now that the shameless self-promotion is out of the way, I will be frank. I have always regarded translation as practice for my own work. When I started out it seemed that, if I could re-create in English the Greek poets I admire, I would better be able to be an English poet to admire. Who knows whether my assumption was sound? I had all kinds of cockamamie pipedreams in my early twenties.
In addition to Ancient Greek and Latin, I can read French, Italian and Modern Greek well enough to translate from them. I dote on Dante and have fiddled around with translating bits of the Divine Comedy. A project like that, though, would take a whole lifetime, and I am too selfish to hand my career over to another poet. Yes, Cavafy is a marvel but there are already so many good translations. I feel my Sappho translation fulfilled a need—Greekless readers needed to be able to grasp what all the fuss was about.
TO: John Hollander said once in an interview, "I had written humorous light verse in high school but never did anything I called a poem until after I'd translated Baudelaire." Do you think all poets should do 'translation apprenticeships' before being able to call themselves poets?
AP: Most of my favorite poets spent years on translation in their youth. The great advantage is that you don’t need to worry about what to say—that’s a given, so you can focus wholly on tone and craft. In addition, translation offers poets—who are, on the whole, a pretty self-obsessed lot—the opportunity to get out of themselves and work on character voices. I found great relief in vanishing into the sensualist, ardent and at times menacing voice of Sappho; the thunderously huge yawp of Aeschylus, which is only bombastic when translated poorly; and the nerdy but in the end adorable patter of Aratus. Practicing translation can only be good for a poet. All the same, there have been great English poets who did not know a foreign language—John Keats, for example.
TO: When can a person call himself or herself a poet?
AP: Hmn, that’s a good question, I have only recently started listing my profession as poet, and I guess it’s because I have accepted that I am not going to have any other career.
TO: How likely is it that more Sappho fragments will surface in the near future?
AP: Out there in sands of the desert more Greek poetry is waiting to be dug up. In 2001, for example, tomb-raiders discovered what was, more or less, a whole new body of work stuffing a mummy—that of Posidippus, the poetry not the mummy. It’s also a great story—the papyrus floated around on the black market for a number of years before the University of Milan bought it.
So I would say, yes, it is inevitable that more bits of Sappho will turn up. We had to wait over a thousand years to recover a whole new poem, though, and we may have to wait until Kingdom Come to get our hands on another complete one.
TO: Have you caught any flack for being a man and translating Sappho?
AP: I have not received one ounce of express flack for being a dude and translating Sappho, though I have always assumed there would be discomfort in some circles. I also assumed that my editor at Penguin chose Carol Ann Duffy to write the preface not only because she is a big name but because she, as a female and lesbian, would balance me out. None of this was ever explicit—I guess it didn’t need to be, and I was of course thrilled that Ms. Duffy agreed to write the preface.
I think I was well suited to the task. My personal style is dramatic, and I had written in female voices often before I undertook the Sappho project. For a fellow to write convincingly in a female voice strikes me as a great challenge. I have written a number of verse dramas, and I expect that when I turn back to playwriting, my time with Sappho and her girls will make my female characters stronger.