A Journal of Formal & Metrical Verse

Interview with A.M. Juster

Mike, thanks for agreeing to be Barefoot Muse's featured poet. I'd like to start by talking a little about translations, as it is a particular forte of yours. I note you translate from Italian, French, Latin and Chinese. Do you speak ALL those languages equally fluently, and if not, how do you manage to produce such excellent renditions.

Thank you, Anna, for the kind words. When I started translating, I did it mostly as an exercise to teach myself how to write formal poetry in an era before the Internet, West Chester, or on-line workshops. Writing formal poetry was an eccentric thing that one learned and did in isolation, and translation was initially just a way to learn to use the formal toolbox. On a lark I sent a few of those exercises to journals that had never accepted my original work, and I was pleasantly surprised that they were as well-received as they were.

After a few years I started enjoying translation for its own sake. I became more serious about it, so I stopped working from literal translations, which is what I was doing with the Chinese, and decided to stick for the most part with languages I can read. I'm barely fluent in English, so I don't know that I would describe myself as fluent in any language. I taught myself a little German and Dutch in elementary school (it was part of a deal we cut so I could read what I wanted in the back of the room if I stayed out of trouble). I had five years of Latin and French in junior high and high school, and after graduation took some classes in Italian at Tufts and elsewhere. Given the similarities in the Romance languages, I can usually pick my way slowly through a Portuguese or Spanish text. I have also taught myself a little bit about a few other languages ranging from Oromo to Old English when I have become interested in poetry in those languages.

Although I'm not critical of others who translate from languages they don't speak, I feel less like an impostor working in languages where my language skills rise to mediocrity. Lately, it's been mostly Latin. I've become very interested in post-classical Latin poetry, and I'm finding a lot of interesting overlooked work. I have a list of long poems and plays in French and Italian that I'm hoping to take on down the road.

I think the key to successful translation is immersing yourself in the poet's work and the poetry of the time, so that you have a chance of replicating as closely as possible the meaning, rhythm and sound of the original. I feel a translator has a fiduciary duty to the original author to make a translation as faithful as possible to the original work, which, of course, includes making it work well as poetry to a reader hearing it for the first time. There's no formula, but I'm not big on the modern practice of treating translated poems as an opportunity for poets to express their creativity by writing something in their own voice that is barely connected to the original text. Accordingly, I am not a big fan of Pound, Lowell or Bly, but I am in awe of Wilbur. I'm a huge fan of Rhina Espaillat's translations from the Spanish and her translations of Frost into Spanish. I love the Charles Martin and Alicia Stallings translations of Roman poets, Bill Coyle's translations of modern Swedish poets, and the Sullivan & Murphy Beowulf, which I think leaves the Heaney version in the dust.

Which is your favorite language to translate from and why?

Italian. The music of the words is just so gorgeous. I also feel that the ghosts of their poets are more forgiving about the shortcomings of my efforts than the ghosts of poets from other nations.

Your style is to translate Horace into a very contemporary vernacular. Is that how the tone of Horace's Latin would have appeared to readers of his time, do you think?

Absolutely. The title of his work in Latin is Sermones, which is usually translated as "Satires," but linguistically "Conversations" would probably be more accurate. We actually learn a lot about nonliterary Latin from Horace, such as the word that was used in daily life for "horse" as opposed to the word that had always been used in literature.

It's silly to translate Horace's Satires in a "high" voice that would be appropriate for a Roman epic; the Satires were fresh and informal in their time. We spoil a lot of our classics by reading phony stereotypes back into the originals. Petrarch, for instance, is frequently translated with a mustiness that comes from placing him—wrongly—in a heavily stylized "courtly love" tradition that didn't exist in his time (if it ever did). Petrarch was the first confessional poet, and he was writing, somewhat shockingly, in the vernacular. The modern analogues for Petrarch are Plath, Berryman, Lowell and Snodgrass, not the "thee and thou" sonneteers of the nineteenth century.

You have published three books so far—a collection of Petrarch translations called Longing for Laura (Birch Brook Press 2001), The Secret Language of Women (University of Evansville Press 2003), and Horace's Satires (University of Pennsylvania Press 2008). Can you talk a little bit about the inspirations behind each book?

At West Chester about a dozen years ago Dana Gioia introduced me to my friend Catherine Tufariello, who was looking for someone to help her with Petrarch translations. I'd published a few Petrarch translations in The Formalist, but had given up doing more due to the difficulty of coming up with so many fair rhymes sonnet after sonnet. Catherine's enthusiasm was infectious, though, so for about a year we wrote drafts independently and then critiqued each other's work. I think we both thought that we might be able to do the whole Canzoniere, but we ran out of gas after about eighty poems between us. Catherine published her best in the Hudson Review, and I put my best ones into Longing for Laura.

The long title poem for my second book sprang from my interest in Chinese literature. One day I came across a news article on nushu, a language that only women spoke in rural China for about a thousand years. The legend associated with the language was that it originated at court, but there was no story (at least that I could find) explaining the migration of the language to the countryside. All of a sudden a story started forcing its way into my mind in a way I've never experienced before or since, and I put it down on paper. I'm hoping something like that will happen to me again someday.

I owe the third book to Wyatt Prunty. When I was a fellow at the Sewanee Writers' Conference in 2005, we had a great conversation one evening. Wyatt essentially told me he liked my work, but—I can't remember the exact tactful way he put it—that I was repeating the kind of work that had grown easy for me to write and that I needed to challenge myself more. It was then I decided I needed to stop puttering with Horace and to try a book-length translation, even though I couldn't do it the first time. About 1850 heroic couplets later I had the book.

And you have several books in the pipeline too. What are they and when will they be published?

My translation of Tibullus' Delia & Nemesis is being reviewed by a major academic publisher now, and I am hopeful that it will be published in 2012. It's a collection of elegies that was held in very high regard for almost two thousand years, but these days is rarely read outside of classics departments, in large part because the available translations are inaccurate and unreadable.

I am working now on the notes and revisions for a delightful new project, the first "literary" translation of Saint Aldhelm's Riddles since a terrible 1925 version. Playing with puns, thumping Anglo-Saxon alliteration and surprising rhymes is a joy after the somber blank verse elegiac couplets of Tibullus. For the Riddles I'm hoping to get serious with a publisher over the summer, which probably means a 2013 publication date.

I have also started putting together my second collection of my own poems, which will be called A Midsummer Night's Hangover, the title of a poem I published in the Southwest Review a few years ago. I have about six to eight poems that I have set aside that I'm going to try to finish for that book. Realistically, I think we're looking at 2014 for my Hangover.

Now, of course, we need to talk about the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award, which you have won three times since its inception in 1994, in addition to being placed as a finalist four times. What did Bill Baer say when he called you for the third time, and what did you say back?

(laughter) Well, I saw Bill's name on my caller ID, and I said "Uh oh!" because all of a sudden I remembered I had not sent him some poems I had promised him for one of his University of Evansville Press anthologies. So when he said something like, "Well, you did it again," I thought it was a reference to my messing up his publication schedule. It truly hadn't crossed my mind that he would be calling with good Nemerov news.

Once we straightened it out, he must have been thinking, "How does a dolt like Juster keep winning?"

You have written a humorous sonnet ,"So You Want to Win a Nemerov," but what do you really think the judges are looking for, and why do they find it so frequently in your work?

I've never tried to pin Bill down about the process, because that would be a bit tacky, but my understanding is that Bill and Mona Baer do the initial screening and then the judge goes from there. My observation about Bill and Mona is that they are more open-minded about well-crafted deviations from strict form and meter than many people think, and that if you go back and read all the finalists, you'll see that's true. Perhaps more importantly, when you're reading what I've heard is three thousand sonnets a year, you get pretty bored by the usual subjects pretty quickly. Last year I judged the New England Shakespeare Festival's Shakespearean sonnet contest. With only about three hundred entries, I started groaning regularly at about sonnet seventy-five. It is predictable that judges will prefer something they feel they haven't seen before, which is why I suspect my sonnets on subjects like political prisoners being buried in a zoo and a modern-day Echo rebuking a modern-day Narcissus captured their attention.

People should remember there is a random element to it all, though. When Bill was putting together his sonnet anthology, he once told me that his favorite sonnet of mine was "Cancer Prayer" and asked me why I hadn't sent it to The Formalist. I said, "Bill, I did—twice—once for the Nemerov and once through the regular process," to which he sheepishly replied, "Well, we all make mistakes."

You are a member of the Powow River Poets, a group which includes other notable Nemerov winners, such as Rhina Espaillat, Deborah Warren, Robert Crawford and Stephen Scaer. How does the synergy of that remarkable group benefit you as a poet?

That could be a book, but I think the most important thing is that I trust them and respect their talents, so that when they offer criticism of my poems, I know it's thoughtful and well-intended, and that I should listen very carefully. That's so hard to find.

Also, after each Saturday morning workshop, I've usually seen a stunning poem that makes me want to raise the bar on myself. For instance, I started composing "A Midsummer Night's Hangover" in my head while driving back home after a workshop where I was knocked out by a first draft of an Alfred Nicol poem called "The Magician's Bashful Daughter." I'm not sure I could explain the connection logically, but I know it's there.

I've read that you are fond of Philip Larkin's work, though your own poems seem infinitely more optimistic than Larkin's. Would you describe Larkin as an influence, and just how do you stay so cheerful?

In some sense I owe it all to the old bastard.

I took a couple of poetry writing seminars at Yale when I was writing mostly imitative free verse. The first one was run by Robert Shaw, who made me write my first sonnet. The second one was a disaster run by F.D. Reeve, who sat me down at the end of the semester and said, "Young man, you have no talent for poetry. You should find yourself a new hobby."

I took Reeve's advice to heart, and neither read nor wrote poetry for more than a decade. Then in 1990, I think, I read in the Washington Post a Dana Gioia review of Philip Larkin's Collected, and decided I wanted to read the book. I enjoyed it immensely, and then started wondering if I could write accessible but complex formal verse like Larkin's. It took me about four years to start getting the hang of it.

By the way, I'm not sure I'm as consistently cheerful as you're suggesting—certainly none of the three Nemerov sonnets is upbeat, and some of my poems, such as "Self-portrait at Fifty" seem to me to be perhaps too Larkinesque.

What about other influences?

I know this disclosure will surprise some people, but in college I was under the sway of Eliot, Thomas, Plath and Creeley. When I restarted twenty years ago, my tastes changed a great deal. Interestingly, I think I never absorbed the voice of some poets whom I greatly admire. For instance, I'm a huge admirer of Wilbur and Frost, but I don't think they have influenced my original poetry much.

For my humorous verse, I think there are a lot of clear influences—X.J. Kennedy most of all, but it's easy enough to find some Sam Gwynn, Dorothy Parker, Wendy Cope and a dash of Byron. I'm also big on Jonathan Swift, and sometimes think I'm only person who prefers him hands-down to Alexander Pope. For the more somber stuff, it's harder for me to tell after Larkin—perhaps a bit of Horace, Borges, the Chinese shih poets, Auden (particularly 1935-1940) and Rilke. On a personal level, Dana Gioia, Rhina Espaillat, Tim Murphy, Alan Sullivan, Rachel Hadas, Alicia Stallings and Tim Steele have been extraordinarily helpful to me, and I have had some wonderfully supportive editors such as Bill Baer, John Mella and Jody Bottum.

Finally, it's not exactly a secret that A.M. Juster is a pen name. Some people say that the A stands for nothing, but I'm sure you have something picked out. So, is it Auden, Alfred, Andrew or Arnold?

Archibald. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

A.M. Juster, Featured Poet