Poetry News

Paul Legault at BOMBLOG: 'More Than Just the Idea of Offending Emily Dickinson'

By Harriet Staff

Our friend Paul Legault talks in-depth about his newly released book of Emily Dickinson translations, The Emily Dickinson Reader, over at BOMBLOG! Jonathan Aprea writes, "Legault’s use of standard English is a funny choice for Dickinson, and the result heightens her work to an almost painful comedy." More from their interview is below. How it came about:

Paul Legault An interesting enough answer is: simultaneously. I was in a course at UVA on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, so all we did was read Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. And when we got to the Emily Dickinson, everyone . . . it was an academic course and I was sitting in as an MFA student, and everyone in the class was digging through her biography and trying to figure out what each poem meant in terms of like, Oh, well her cousin had just died, and she wrote this poem immediately afterward, and this poem is obviously, you know, about the death of her cousin. So they would translate the poem as: I’m sad that my dead cousin is dead.

Which I found frustrating initially. I was really kind of annoyed because I was part of this cult of Emily Dickinson who prized her works as these steel-tight boxes that were meant to be beheld and not changed . . . which is insane. (laughter) I still love that version of Emily Dickinson, but I also started to fall in love with my classmates’ versions, because I thought it was funny. One poem would be like, “I really wanna have sex with Susan Gilbert Dickinson, my sister-in-law,” because she had just written this love letter the day before she wrote the poem. So people were doing this, and I would take down what they said in the margins, and then I started to think it was funny. At first I was making fun of them but then I just kept doing it. The joke became serious. So I would write these versions of Emily Dickinson. I’m interested in translating many other poets, and I’ve done that. I translated all of Williams’s Spring and All and all of Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, but differently. I usually come up with a mode that fits the book. In this case I was kind of just responding to these other people’s mode.

Aprea notes that "Some people who really like Emily Dickinson and really appreciate those tight, steel box poem that she created, which all look like they took her so long to write, might find it so degrading that you reduce them all to this standard English." More:

JA... Do you feel that way? Or do you think it’s more an act of appropriation, where it’s more related to heightening her and paying her homage?

PL Sure. There’s no way that I can ruin the originals because they are made of this thing that should not be penetrated and is thus impenetrable because of the love that it has built around it. And I’m part of that, because I love Emily Dickinson, so I thought this was just another thing, just an extension of that, which was kind of an experiment to see how far you could stray from her while still keeping her DNA. So all these poems have something of her in them, and if you believe that’s true, then there’s just more Emily Dickinson in the world, because there’s the original, and then there are these poems that have some of her in them. So it’s just kind of like, maybe a fucked up progeny of Emily Dickinson that she maybe would have never wanted? (laughter) But it did come from her. And I like to think that it’s wanted. I mean, if Emily Dickinson were alive in 2012, she’d be a different person. And I imagine we could get along. But yeah, I have been getting some flack.

JA What kind of flack have you gotten?

PL Well, it’s kind of embarrassing, but in this day and age, most people have a Google alert on their name. I don’t know if that’s true or not but I have a Google alert on my name, which is a horrible idea, so I find out whatever anyone says.

JA So it’s in blogs and things like that?

PL Amazon reviews.

JA Oh that’s funny.

PL The bad responses that have arrived at my door are from people who haven’t actually read the book, but don’t like the idea. They think it sounds derogatory. But anyone who reads the book hopefully will see, through my introduction and through all of the context around the poems that I do love her. One of my translations, “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun–,” I couldn’t do—it didn’t make sense to me. Every time I tried to parse it, it failed. I just gave up and pointed directly to Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, which has a 30 page chapter going through that poem and being drowned by it and coming up on top and kind of exploring it. And I respect that model too. I don’t know, hopefully if they actually get the book they’ll see that it’s more than just the idea of offending Emily Dickinson.

Read the full interview here.

Originally Published: October 12th, 2012