A few years ago I had the pleasure and honor, once again, of working with William O’Daly, providing a few images for his book, The Road to Isla Negra, published by Folded Word, 2015. Our collaborations go back many years, and I wanted to sit in the digital clouds with him and ask a few questions about his contributions, both in his widely respected translations of the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, but equally so about his own remarkable poetry. Here below is a sample poem and image from that publication, followed by the interview.
‘Leave This’ from the Dream Sea Series, 2015
The Road to Isla Negra
We live twice on the road to Isla Negra—
once in our dreams and once in our shoes.
Scent of the waves, a patch of open sky,
the innocent walking single file,
the cruel learning slowly—
toward which victory, what defeat?
The poet returns to us, to the world,
to the bell hanging in the back yard
at the starry door of the sea. He rings
for the neighbors and the exiles to join him,
and soon they arrive. Sitting in the small boat
anchored in gravel, they sail into the horizon,
toasting to pain and to joy, multiplying hope.
~ William O’Daly
[Excerpted from The Road to Isla Negra, with photographs by Galen Garwood, Folded Word Press, 2015]
GG: In your website’s introduction, “Why I Translate, Why Neruda?” you explain that Neruda’s poetry captured your imagination like no other, connecting you to “its crystalline quality and the sad intensity.” What was it like in the beginning, diving into those first poems from Aún? It seems to me that successfully translating a poem from one language into another, keeping pure its reflection, is possibly as difficult as writing the original. Did you feel Neruda’s presence in the room, standing behind you, overlooking?
WO: My first attempt at serious translation was sobering. Almost instantly I experienced a sense of futility…but also excitement, which I still feel after translating nine Neruda books. My creative writing teacher at the time, Philip Levine, directed us workshop students to translate a poem for our next class session, so I went to the Spanish-language section of the Stanislaus County Library in Modesto, California, and pulled Aún, or Still Another Day, off the shelf. I thought I knew just about all of Neruda’s work, but I hadn’t seen his late-career and posthumous poetry. I took it home, flipped through it, and in my anticipation figured I might as well start with the first poem.
Pencil poised, I read the first five words of the first line: “Hoy es el día más,….” I stared at those words for a spell, gave up and wrote, “Today is the day with the mostest,….” Not wanting to stall, I circled the silly rendering and moved to the second half of the first line and beyond to complete the first sentence. It was not an auspicious beginning. Only in the final draft of the manuscript, seven years later, did I definitively settle on “Today is that day, the day that carried / a desperate light that since has died.”
Assessing difficulty between writing “original” poems and composing their translations is a tricky thing. I’m pretty sure I’ve given up trying. But when one composes a translation that lives in intimate dialogue with the original, the poet, by necessity, has composed a poem. Another perspective is, the original poem and its successful transmigration become identical twins, though the resulting poem in translation is not a clone of the original. The original and the translation share a deeply intimate connection—in language, in meaning, in spirit—and they feel each other’s pain and joy. They process experience in much the same way, and readers come to each seeking the poetry within the words. When I first started translating Still Another Day, which became the first book in my late-career and posthumous Neruda series published by Copper Canyon Press, I felt his passionate presence in those “little symphonies,” as Neruda scholar Robert Pring-Mill describes the poems. But when I would give readings from that book, and from subsequent books in the series, I could feel Neruda’s spirit standing next to me. His presence was palpable.
One summer, when I was translating my second Neruda, The Separate Rose, I went to live with my girlfriend in Eugene, Oregon. Every day, making my way to University of Oregon’s Knight Library—I loved having access to their trove of Spanish-language dictionaries—I’d walk through the graveyard on campus. I’d read the headstones, many of the same ones, and would chant “Neruda!” “Neruda!” No one living was ever around, so I felt free to summon the poet. But one day, a couple I hadn’t noticed came around a corner as I was chanting his name. They looked at me as if I were crazy. I struggled to keep a straight face and asked, “Have you seen Neruda?” With mystified smiles and concern, they shook their heads. I thanked them, returned their smiles, and went on my way.
GG: Including your first Neruda translation, Still Another Day, released in 1984, you’ve translated nine books by Neruda, all published by Copper Canyon Press, the most recent one, Book of Twilight. Folded Word Press has recently published three chapbooks of your poetry: The Road to Isle Negra; Water Ways, a collaboration with JS Graustein; and Yarrow and Smoke, the second book in the press’s Masters Series. You also manage to maintain a healthy schedule of readings and travel—all of this while supervising the Technical Publications and Communication Media group for the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), a position that undoubtedly requires a great deal of time and effort, especially during these last several years. That’s a remarkable schedule and creative output. How do you manage it?
WO: Toward the end of this past summer and into early fall, I finally had to cry “uncle.” I’d get home from DWR; pour a glass of red wine; sit on the back patio, sometimes until the sun went down; read books of poems and Muriel Rukeyser’s incredible The Life of Poetry; and stare at clouds, trees, and birds. I was recovering from the past four years of intensive, nearly unrelenting work, but it also felt like a gathering period. Our imaginations are constantly creating, and whether it’s in my professional life or my personal writing life I do my best to tap what emanates from that source of intuition, vision, and feeling. Doing so is energizing, even as it consumes energy, but the creation-and-use cycle overall is fed by passion and gives life purpose. That’s also what’s kept me going.
I’ve done a lot of college teaching and worked as a literary editor; a senior instructional designer for the Windows operating system; and a freelance writer and editor. Since 2006, I’ve worked in the environmental field as a technical editor, research writer, and now, as you describe, a supervisor whose primary personal assignments are the California Water Plan, the state’s strategic master plan for water, and Governor Jerry Brown’s California Water Action Plan. I’ve been fortunate, as it’s been a fascinating trajectory, one I never could’ve planned, and believe it or not all these opportunities were made possible by my work as a poet and literary translator. There are interesting backstories, but, in short, working as a committed poet made my professional life possible, and the varied nature of my professional life has fed my poetry, kept my feet on the ground, and provided me with ways to directly improve others’ lives and our culture—beyond the writing of poems. I feel this is particularly true of my current position, where I’m working with an exceptional bunch of writer-editors, engineers, scientists, and water professionals to move California toward environmental sustainability, while focusing special efforts on disadvantaged and under-represented communities, as well as on California Native American Tribes. To keep a society sustainable, all boats must be made and kept seaworthy. That’s a physical, as well as, moral necessity.
What’s more, an author or poet really needs to support his publisher, particularly publishers of poetry who, to differing degrees, survive “hand to mouth.” And what’s the point of publishing a book if a poet doesn’t do what he can to get the book into readers’ hands? So, I give a fair number of readings, teach at writers’ conferences, give the occasional interview, utilize social media and my own email distribution list for literary announcements, and attend readings and other events when I can. I fulfill requests by other poets and writers to support their work, but I sometimes have to say, “No, thank you, I can’t right now,” which I’m getting better at, even though I find having to do so disappointing.
But yes, from time to time I feel burned out and need to recharge. I’m almost recharged again. I recently finished an essay, “Creative Collisions: Poetry as a Transformative Act,” which was selected as a finalist for Tiferet Journal’s 2018 Writing Contest. I’m shopping it around now. Also, I’ve just completed a full-length manuscript of poems, The New Gods, which has seen two previous incarnations. I’m finally happy with it and have started submitting it to publishers.
GG: Fascinating. One last question. I recently ran across some thoughts by Wallace Stevens, who did double-duty as an executive for an insurance company for almost four decades. In his “Memorandum,” writing on the theory of poetry, Steven’s asserts that “the major poetic idea in the world is and always has been the idea of God.” And later, “In an age of disbelief, it is for the poet to supply the satisfactions of belief, in his measure and in his style.” Do you believe that perhaps the poet—the voice of the poet (his and hers)—has always been the real interlocutor between humanity and what is divine?
WO: That’s a question! By “real interlocutor,” I take it you’re referring to the poet standing between humanity and what is godly or of God and composing, let’s say, an uncommon common language by which humanity and God or goodness, sublimity or beauty, speak with one another. I’m widening the dialogue because, if the poet’s voice serves that spiritual purpose, might not paintings and photographs, say your own—which in their vulnerability keep a core aesthetic, a moral strength— do the same? It wouldn’t seem the interlocution would have to be based on words, but more on inner purpose and knowing, openness to what is revealed and to what we cannot know, insight, and humility. On music or dance? The NYC poet Yesenia Montilla searches her own “body for God or someone like her.” And what of the mountain or the river by which we communicate with the divine?
I see the poet’s “voice,” in the widest meaning, serving the role you describe, as I do all artistic, architectural, topographic, geophysical, elemental forms of expression. As Muriel Rukeyser says, “Poetry is the language of water.” I believe all are real; all are a real interlocutor; they transfigure, transform, become a form of prayer, of giving what they’ve got to give. The poem or play, the song or dance, or protection and healing of what’s loved, asks for nothing more than participation. South African poet Dennis Brutus was asked whether all poets are obliged to be politically committed. Mr. Brutus replied, the poet “has no obligation to be committed, but the man—as a man—has an obligation to be committed.” We all should be committed, aware with a willingness to act upon clarity of perception. The poet, in Mr. Brutus’s view, is one of the many “everybodies.” When the voice of the poet asks for participation, the voice is asking for a response. That’s what Wallace Stevens refers to when he says “poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.”
Personally, I feel closer to the burnt offering of Ms. Montilla’s “Searching My Own Body.”
Once someone said you are this
& I never questioned it
I am searching my own body
or someone like her—
Your question, this conversation, endures and is everlasting. Thank you, maestro!
WILLIAM O’DALY has translated eight books of the late-career and posthumous poetry of Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, and most recently Neruda’s first volume, Book of Twilight, a finalist for the 2018 Northern California Book Award in Translation. All nine Neruda translations are published by Copper Canyon Press. O’Daly’s books of poems include The Whale in the Web, also published by Copper Canyon, as well as The Road to Isla Negra (2015), Water Ways (2017, a collaboration with JS Graustein), and Yarrow and Smoke (2018), the latter three published by Folded Word Press. A National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, O’Daly was a finalist for the 2006 Quill Award in Poetry and was profiled by Mike Leonard for The Today Show. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, his poems, translations, essays, and reviews have been published in numerous journals and as part of multimedia exhibits and performances. His essay “Creative Collisions: Poetry as a Transformative Act” was a finalist for Tiferet Journal’s 2018 Writing Contest. He has received national and regional honors for literary editing and instructional design, was a co-founder of Copper Canyon Press, and served on the board of Poets Against War. Most recently, he was awarded by the State of California for his written and editorial contributions to the California Water Plan.