Poetry News

Another Aeneid: David Hadbawnik in Conversation with Kent Johnson

By Harriet Staff


Up at the Lana Turner blog, Kent Johnson talks to poet and translator David Hadbawnik about his recent translations of the Aeneid. Johnson and Hadbawnik start their conversation by thinking through the whys of creating another Aeneid in English translation:

Kent Johnson: David, you have recently completed a translation of books 1 and 2 of the Aeneid, with books 3 and 4 apparently nearly done, as well. Just to say that sounds quite amazing to me... Now, you aren't the first to take the plunge, obviously! So why another Aeneid? Tell us more about this rather impressive commitment you have made. What motivated you to undertake another version? What are you trying to do and why, if you'll excuse such a forward question? And tell us, please, about the translation method[s] that guide the work. "Free" or openly "traduced" versions of different classical poets have been done by a few younger poets of the so-called post-avant in recent years. Such translucine approach (the term from Erín Moure and Andrés Ajens)seems to be gaining in popularity. To what extent does your Virgil draw from that spirit?

David Hadbawnik: Virgil began for me as an assignment in a Latin course; we would dip in here or there and translate 30 or so lines and then go over them in class. I kept working on it to keep my hand in. After a while it just seemed like a natural, if foolhardy thing to do, to try to translate the whole thing, or at least a sizable portion of it. Then I began to work through my word-for-word notes and put them into a kind of poetry that was exciting and interesting to me to read and publish them here and there. Finally I enlisted Carrie Kaser, a visual artist and printmaker I'd worked with on previous projects, to provide some illustrations -- thinking about long poems and the tradition of Dante and Gustave Dore, something to break up the text and so on -- and that was when it really took off.

Why another Aeneid? Precisely because we don't need one. There are so many good translations out there that if you are looking for a literal version, or whatever kind of verse approximation, you can find it. That fact liberates one to do something more creative with the poetry and not worry so much about literal accuracy (though I strive to be accurate in tone rather than diction, I would say). As for approach, I was working at the time on Jack Spicer's and Thomas Meyer's translations of Beowulf, and Tom's, especially, inspired me to think about the poem in a completely different cultural and aesthetic context. The Aeneid is so contemporary in a way -- it's frequently thought of as political/imperial propaganda, and certainly there are elements of that, but I believe it is also pretty subversive. There are moments when Aeneas is just so dumb and inert, you can't help but think that Virgil was making fun of him; and since he is an avatar of the Emperor Augustus, that's playing with fire. I can't claim to be as breathtakingly adventurous with the poem from a visual standpoint as Tom is with Beowulf, but I am trying to have fun with Virgil and think through some of the really complex issues with narrative and power and image that the poem raises. So, yes, very much in the current stream of poets doing traductions, of which I would also add you as an inspiration.

Johnson goes on to think about where Hadbawnik's Aeneid falls in relation to branches of translation aligned to various modernist and/or avant garde approaches:

KJ: You’d mentioned a “current stream of poets doing traductions,” and I’d like to parse that broader formulation a bit, if in a provisional way. And feel free to disagree and correct here, please. Within the fairly significant and growing group of poets working in exploratory modes of translation, we could maybe see, at least at first view, two major tributaries: 1) poets practicing a species of translucination, where the new version still bears (as Pound’s Cathay, or Lowell’s Imitations) some kind of genetically recognizable trace to its source, even as the gesture openly aims to “make it new”; in this grouping, poets seem to be going back somewhat to the Renaissance/Augustan tradition of imitation, inhabiting, with a fair degree of homage, the original from inside, chiseling and remodeling away from within. And on the other hand, 2), poets who exhibit a predisposition to bracket, almost as a matter of principle, nearly all traditional protocols of fidelity as “essentialist” baggage, even if their “translations” sometimes follow the source when the spirit chooses-- (Spicer’s After Lorca, in the sense of general genre-messing, might be the breakaway, urtext, in this regard; Louis and Celia Zukofsky’s bizarre sonic Catullus another, if very different example; bpNichols’s experiments, too). Given what you’ve said about the Virgil, I would place you in the first group, actually, along with folks like Christopher Logue, Devin Johnston, John Tipton, Erín Moure, and others, where a deeper tracing of core contours of sense and emotion still guides, even as lexical and syntactical “accuracy” so often takes backseat. In the second group, you have younger U.S. writers like Brandon Brown, Christian Hawkey, or David Larsen, or Tim Atkins in the UK, where the original provides a kind of provocation for its appropriation and transfiguration. Anything to this thinking-out- loud? In any case, the recent expansion of translation into new areas strikes me as a noteworthy development that is still quite under-examined. Maybe things need to shake out a bit more before we can get a theoretical purchase on it. But it’s interesting, perhaps, how this quasi-renaissance of poetic translation spectra, the opening of its American field, as it were, concurrently flourishes inside the pretty apparent crisis of our nation’s imperial project and power.

DH: Kent, that’s a very interesting line you’ve drawn between these translator-poets and their approaches, and to some extent I have to gauge my own reaction and resistance to it in attempting to see myself on one side or the other. My immediate impulse is to not want to be in the first group, however accomplished it is and however much I admire the modernist Pound and the contemporary Erín Moure. Given that we are both clearly attracted to the Spicer branch of translation-oriented poetics, I very much want to be on that side of the grouping! But then I have to ask myself, aside from those affinities, why should that be? I think it has something to do with the second part of your question re. “the recent expansion of translation into new areas,” which if I understand it correctly involves a postmodernist attitude towards translation, that it should not merely involve language (or at least not merely in a semantic sense). So (to oversimplify) Zukofsky’s Catullus puts sound above meaning, while Spicer’s poetics translates not only words but also deeper structures and desires from a source text, suggesting avenues for the poet-translator to follow that may lead far afield of the source. To not adopt one of those strategies feels somehow antiquated, or uncreative. And this in turn bleeds into, and maps onto, the literary marketplace vis-a-vis the particular niche in which the translation work is deposited.

Read on over at Lana Turner where Hadbawnik talks more about his translation process, his friendship with and mentoring by Diane di Prima, and life in the Bay Area poetry scene in the late-90s. We'll exit out with this catalog of ships!

When I stumbled into di Prima’s workshop, I really had no idea what to expect, or what the various options were in the late-1990s Bay Area poetry scene (not to mention how to decode the secret handshakes that would have made those options viable). You had people like Juliana Spahr, Brent Cunningham, and Taylor Brady coming from the Buffalo Poetics Program; kari edwards, Michael Smoler, and Roger Snell from Naropa; Arielle Guy, Ryan Newton, and Micah Ballard at New College (still operational at that time, with Tom Clark, Duncan McNaughton, and David Meltzer teaching). Then there was Summi Kaipa, who’d studied at Iowa; David Larsen and Julian Brolaski were getting degrees at Berkeley; Stephanie Young, who’d studied with di Prima, wound up at Mills College in Oakland, and Alli Warren was down at UC-Santa Cruz, where Nathaniel Mackey taught. Then as now, there were Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy, existing as somewhat of a safe haven between the various younger and older poets like Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Michael Palmer, Bill Berkson, and so on. There was Stacy Doris and Steve Dickison at SF State and the folks at CCA... So lots of separate but overlapping, academically inflected poetry scenes, most of which emphatically were not informed by the standard MFA notion of “professional” poetry. It was exciting, exhilarating, and awfully intimidating.

Originally Published: May 12th, 2014
  1. May 14, 2014
     Gloucester / Kalamazoo postscript | Primitive Information

    [...] I’m grateful to the Harriet Blog at the Poetry Foundation for excerpting some bits from my conversation with Kent [...]