Q & A: American Poetry

Q & A American Poetry: Rika Lesser

Are there essential ways in which you consider yourself an American poet?

The more poetry I read published in this country– whether written originally in the English of whichever continent (or island) or in the language of some other country– the more I feel myself part of a dying breed of American poet/ Translators Who Translate Only From Languages they Know Intimately (or Extremely Well) and, while not predominantly scholars, have no fear of scholarship. These are people for whom the translation of poetry is every bit as creative and as essential to their "practice" as writing their own poems. Far more common nowadays are books of translated poetry which tell you everything about the original poems, even how to read the original texts, but do not show you, do not provide you with poems that are a pleasure to read in English. Such books are often "translated" by scholars alone, or by scholars working with poets who often know very little about the original languages. Having been born here, I consider myself and American poet. My family tree includes Randall Jarrell and Richard Wilbur; another branch– less directly related in methodology– includes Pound and Lowell. Perhaps my concern with and for writers form other cultures is more European than American... but in the end for me it all boils down to Language and its enormous possibilities to cross boundaries and cultural lines. And that is probably just as much an American attitude.

When you consider your own "tradition," do you think primarily of American poets?

No, I feel as closely related to Rilke– my first real love in another language– as I do to Dickinson. I feel perhaps closer to Gunnar Ekelof than Pound or Stevens. Nowadays, I feel most closely related to Goran Sonnevi, whose work I have been translating for a decade or so, whose single long poem extends through some 15 books, whose language encompasses literature, science, philosophy, politics, and music.

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