Poochigian interview in The High Plains Reader
Here is an interview with Aaron Poochigian about "The Cosmic Purr" and his upcoming reading at the UND Writers Conference: http://hpr1.com/feature/article/a_conversation_with_aaron_poochigian/
A Conversation With Aaron Poochigian
By Dan Nygard
The upcoming UND Writers Conference is a homecoming for Grand Forks native Aaron Poochigian, who will stay busy during his time here with a reading, a screening of a film he has selected (Hitchcock’s “The Birds”), and two panel discussions.
A Moorhead State alum who holds a Ph.D in Classics from the U of Minnesota, Poochigian has just published The Cosmic Purr with Able Muse Press, which is his first book of original poetry after a number of translations such as Stung with Love, a collection from Sappho, published by Penguin Classics, and Aratus’ Phaenomena (Johns Hopkins UP), among others.
High Plains Reader: I understand from your author bio that you began at MSUM (Go Dragons!) studying poetry, then got a Classics degree, published a number of translations, and have now come “full circle” to a collection of original work (and I’m sure it is that simple!) So can you talk a little about how the new collection came to be, especially in relation to the translations?
Aaron Poochigian: Yes, I did write my first poems at MSUM (then Moorhead State U.). In fact, I remember exactly where I was sitting when I realized that I would spend my life writing poetry—on a bench out front of ivy-covered Weld Hall.
I read the opening words of Virgil’s Aeneid (in English translation, but the Latin was there beside it), and I had the closest thing to a religious experience a guy like me is ever going to get—everything became lucid, and I knew that I would spend the rest of my life writing poetry.
Because the poets I admired most then—Shelley, Tennyson, Milton—all had Classical educations, I would need one, too, so I started taking Latin the next semester and Ancient Greek the semester after.
I always regarded my translations as private “craft workshops”, and there has been a fair amount of influence back and forth between my ancient and contemporary work.
The ancient works I have translated were originally intended for live performance, so the poet had a stake in keeping the attention of a living and immediate audience. I think the translations positively influenced my work in that they taught me ways to engage the reader, i.e. by making the reader privy to a conversation, by including the reader in a group with the speaker through the first person plural “we” and other ways.
I think I gravitated towards these techniques because I am usually left cold by the distant meditative voice prevalent in contemporary poetry. I want readers to feel that they are across the table listening to me—in some poems I try to get even closer.
The poems of “The Cosmic Purr,” my labor of love, were written, re-written and written again over a period of nearly two decades. I began the earliest of them before I knew Latin and Greek. In fact, I wrote the first few stanzas of my poem “Leonardo’s ‘Madonna of the Rocks’” in an Art History Class as a freshman at MSUM (I wasn’t enrolled but sat in anyway).
HPR: I have noted in the introductions to your translations (and in the translations themselves) that it is very important to you to preserve the rhythm/meter of the writer, as opposed to opting (as so many translators do) for a free-verse version. I assume those opting for free verse would argue it is easier to remain true to the language of the writer if not writing in form. Is it as difficult as it seems to remain “true” to the writer’s language in a formal translation?
AP: Yes, before I answer that, we should determine what we mean by being “true” to the original.
Since both the form and content of the original work contribute to its meaning, the translator must find both a form that recreates the effect of the original form and words that get as close as English allows to the original words.
Thus, a free-verse translation of a poem as thoroughly formal in its epic style as Aratus’ Phaenomena is not “true” to the original in that it misrepresents the form of the original.
Furthermore, free verse is an invention of the late 19th century. No Greek or Roman poet wrote it, so free-verse translations impose, anachronistically, a modern aesthetic on an ancient one. They give the reader the wrong impression.
So, in the end, I feel the translator is obligated to find a traditional English form that matches the “resonance” of the original form.
Translation into form is indeed an arduous process—it takes a lot of time and involves a lot of craftsmanship—but most good art comes about that way. I make sure that, even with the formal considerations, my translations are at least as faithful as the major free verse translations.
HPR: In “The Cosmic Purr,” you write in forms, and you have done a translation of Aratus’ “Phaenomena,” a didactic poem that is essentially a poetic guide to the skies. My creative writing teachers warned me about writers like you (Just kidding!). In any case, I imagine you’ve been asked this before, but can you talk a little about why form is important, especially when so much contemporary poetry is in free verse?
AP: Aratus’ “Phaenomena” is a didactic epic, that is, it purports to teach the reader not just how to read the stars but other natural signs as well, such as the behavior of birds and plants.
English Literature has many examples of didactic poetry and even of didactic epic (think of Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism).
To make clear to the reader the instructive intentions of the original, I chose to translate the work into the rhyming couplets of Alexander Pope—the reader, for better or worse, would instantly associate the form with sententiousness.
Furthermore, couplets are highly memorable, and thus serve well their educational ends. Yes, I am aware that didactic poetry could not be more out of style, but I wish it weren’t. Contemporary poetry would profit from interacting more with the sciences (as the “Phaenomena” does) and from learning to express scientific concepts both clearly and poetically.
HPR: On a more personal note, has it been a long time since you’ve been back to Grand Forks? Is there anything in particular you are looking forward to (like Red Pepper)?
AP: I confess that from a very early age I craved a metropolis. My adolescence in the Valley was particularly restless.
Now that I have grown up, however, I greatly enjoy my visits and look forward to coming home, whether to spend time with my folks or cat-sit for them while they are away.
I am particularly fond of the area near the University of North Dakota and around my old elementary school and University Park.
I also like to hang out at the Urban Stampede downtown for at least an afternoon. It’s sentimental—I was working there the day the Great Flood of ‘97 forced an evacuation.
I am still fool enough to try to make a career of writing poetry—no small ambition. To achieve it, I need to be in a city large enough to support many venues for readings and an inexhaustible audience for literature.
If I do become established and sufficiently profitable, however, I would spend summers in Grand Forks and Fargo. I have gotten some of my best writing done while on vacation in the Forks.