An Interview with Mark Statman

The first thing that Mark Statman – translator, poet, and The Columbia Review alumnus – told me during our phone conversation was that there were hummingbirds clustered in the flowering tree outside his window. If he seemed a little distracted, it was because he was watching the birds. This type of moment-to-moment attention is characteristic of Statman’s most recent work, Exile Home, which we discussed at length, as well as his time on The Columbia Review and his move to Mexico.

Sofia Montrone: You are an alumnus of Columbia, and of The Columbia Review. I was wondering if you could speak to your time on the magazine. What did it look like? What kinds of activities were you involved in?

Mark Statman: The Review was essential to our lives. I don’t know how to explain it. What mattered to me about The Review when I first became a part of it was that it was fair. That it was open. For me it represented a world unlike anything I had experienced coming from my somewhat insular suburban Long Island town. There were all these wonderful poets and fiction writers that I was getting to spend time with and become friends with and we talked deeply and extensively about literature, about this work. And about music. Art. We’d stay up all night just talking. Writing. Reading poems to each other. It was quite breathtaking.

In terms of appearance of the magazine, at the time that we were working on it, it looked like most small literary magazines. It was all black and white, basic design, very little by way of art and graphics, though we usually had some very good covers. There was an editor one year, Stephen Hall, who decided to get very daring, and wanted us to do it as a portfolio and we actually had to assemble it. The printer delivered the pages to us. I don’t know what that was about. We put it in gray manila envelopes, with a green Columbia Review stamp on the outside of the envelope. 

We would sponsor readings, one or two a semester, and usually, if I remember correctly, it was always students, from both Columbia, which was all male at the time, and Barnard.

What I remember about being an editor and a contributor was being part of a community in which we were trying to do something great. The physical Review meant something important, the magazine had all this history, but it was also the intensity of the old idea of “being geniuses together” that really grabbed me I think. We believed in ourselves as poets and writers. We were going to change the literary world. I think we have in a tiny way.

SM: At the time were [The Columbia Review members] publishing your own work?

MS: The Review mainly published student work, Columbia, Barnard, other parts of the university, because that’s where most of the submissions were coming from. But we looked for work everywhere and accepted what seemed quality. But remember, this is pre-internet, pre-email. It was the time when to submit your work, you send it snail mail with an SASE. It was a tedious process for anyone, the writer, the editors. None of the simplicity of uploading, downloading, send. And without the possibility of an online presence, who knew who you were? We were a very good magazine, but still a college magazine.

Still, we had some very high standards, I think. Oh, I was rejected my first submission! In fact, I remember I got to see a response to one of my submissions saying, “Why would we accept this? It reads like bad translation of a Louse Varese translation of Rimbaud.”

We were very hard on everyone. All submissions were blind but a lot of us knew each other’s work, each other’s concerns. But that didn’t mean things could slip past. I think around that time The Review was becoming more national and international. Michael Goldberg did one of our covers. David Shapiro gave us gorgeous poems. But I think the idea of The Review that was slightly more than college happened more after I left. Joseph Lease, who just published a beautiful new book—we read together last week in Berkeley—was instrumental in that, moving from being an undergraduate review and trying to become greater. But you know, at that point we were publishing Columbia people, you know, Allen Ginsberg, John Hollander. We could do that because we were Columbia. 

I felt so honored that you chose one of my prose poems to republish for the hundred years thing. That moved me a lot. I forgot that I had written that. Now I look back and think: “That’s not so bad!” (Laughs).

SM: Do you feel that you’re a different writer now than when you were writing in college, or even 30 years ago when your first book came out?

MS: I am a different writer, particularly now, but that seems more about evolution, which sometimes includes clean breaks with the past, than it does about “oh I’m not that person anymore, I reject him and all his stupidity”. For example, Exile Home is a different kind of book for me, in a lot of ways, because of the move from New York to Mexico, leaving a job of 31 years, leaving a home we’d lived in for 25. Leaving friends. Of course change makes for difference. 

We have to grow as writers, we have to be different in some ways otherwise we’ll bore ourselves to death. But there is a habit of mind that comes with the recognition for one’s self that one is a writer that I think doesn’t change. A habit. A belief. What Columbia gave me was that habit, that belief, it recognized me as a writer. I didn’t know I was a writer – I had ideas about it, but when I got to study with Kenneth Koch, David Shapiro, with Burton Watson, they taught me that I was a writer and how to accelerate as a writer. What has happened in that time between Columbia and now just seems like a logical extension of what was started there. If you had asked me to predict my life back then – if you had said, “Well, Mark – you’re sixty-one years old and have written ten books. You live in Mexico.” I would have said, “That’s a good idea!” What I was taught at school had to be rigorous and open and fair – most of all, was a love of literature. That’s what Columbia gave to me. 

About fifteen years ago, my father sent me a box he had found, with copies of my old high school literary magazine. I had about ten or twelve poems in each issue. Of course, they were very high school, and of course I’d never publish them today! But I can see in myself then the poet that I am now.

I want to touch back to what you said about The Review because that is important to reflect on. I met people there who have stayed important to me and have encouraged me and it couldn’t have happened in a different place. 

SM: You mentioned translation briefly and I wanted to circle back to that because I know that some of your work – and some of your very successful work – is as a translator. Do you feel that there is a relationship between your original poetry and the work that you choose to approach as a translator?

MS: That’s a complicated question. There was one point when I would have said that there was no connection, but I am growing to understand that translating poetry and writing poetry are connected. I had the greatest gift which was that Pablo Medina and I were given the chance to translate García Lorca’s Poet in New York. We were not known as translators, we were two poets. But we proposed it. And Grove accepted. When we did that, it was post-September 11th, we were two New Yorkers, the whole city, the whole world, what had happened, how to cope with it, translating that book was life-saving. Poet in New York is considered one of the most important books ever written by a Spanish poet. The gift, to translate this book – it was something else. I’m getting a tiny bit emotional trying to explain, but that book really did change things for me. Being the translator of Poet in New York has a weird kind of literary currency.

Since then I‘ve gone on to translate a lot of poets. I don’t translate work that resembles my own. I’m not interested in that. If I could write that, if I could write that way, if I wanted to, I would. I’m interested in translating people whose work looks nothing like my own. Because then they move into you – the words move into you. They use words you would never think to use. They organize their minds in ways that you wouldn’t think to. So getting into their skin, under it, is very interesting.

I should add that it helps an awful lot to be a poet when translating poetry. Because in a lot of ways, the same process for writing a poem, for thinking about how the poem should sound, helps the transition from one language to another.

SM: Do you feel that the work you write after translating is different in any way? Do you feel that new vocabulary moving through you as you process your own work?

MS: I’m not sure. I think the idea of vocabulary, yes, that might be there, because translating might make me interested in words for my own poetry that I hadn’t used before. So translating, because it is so insistent on certain words, certain ways of using them, well, that becomes interesting. Can I use that word?  That phrase?

Language isn’t static, to be obvious. Before living in Mexico, Spanish was a foreign language, even though it was everywhere in my life. Now, English is a foreign language. Not to me, but when I’m in the street or at the market or meeting with friends. We speak in Spanish. My wife said to me the other night that I was dreaming out loud again in Spanish. I’m now dreaming in a different language. Or is it different? So what am I translating? Am I translating from English to Spanish or from Spanish to English? One of my biggest projects right now is that I’m studying contemporary and modern Mexican poetry, which means that a lot of the time, I’m reading Spanish poetry. How is that affecting my poetry? I don’t know. I think that it is still the same voice. But words.

SM: I want to talk a little bit about “Green Side Up” and about your newest book, Exile Home. When I read “Green Side Up,” I felt like it was the collection’s anchor piece. In conceiving of this project, were you working from a central organizing principle – be it a theme or form that you wanted to explore?

MS: “Green Side Up” was not supposed to be in this book. The book was supposed to be about something else but then my dad died and I just started writing. I didn’t know what I was doing, really. Things were just happening because they needed to happen. And then I lost my notebook. I write in these moleskin notebooks, and I lost the notebook that all the poems were in. I don’t know how I lost it. How do you lose a notebook? It’s like a wallet. Or even more. And so I sat down with a new moleskine and I wrote everything – everything – again. It was as if they were in my memory because they were in my heart. I wrote everything except for the part of “Green Side Up” about shaving my father.

Deciding to put “Green Side Up” into the book changed the rest of the book. Because I was working on a book with poems about exile and home, which had a rhythm and a movement and there all of a sudden was a poem about the unexpected death of my father. Which hit me a little on the even greater meanings of those two words.

Exile Home wasn’t a book I exactly expected to write. I was already committed to publishing a new book of poems this year. And I had the poems for it, because normally the poems I publish I’ve been working on for 3, 4, 5 years. But after moving to Mexico in September 2016, I realized those poems, as much as I like them, didn’t make any sense in the current context of my life. Life had changed so dramatically. So much of my work has been rooted in the urban, in those rhythms. It’s been about a certain tension between presence and absence that living in New York City allowed me. Because being rooted was always what allowed me to throw my life into doubt.

But here I was uprooted, living in a place I knew pretty well as a tourist, but never as a resident. Here I was living in a culture in which I was the outsider, maybe even the invader. That I speak fluent Spanish helped me with some things, but the awareness of difference is so keenly felt, so keenly heightened. As is the awareness of privilege. All privilege. Exile and Home function for me as verb and noun. I was in exile, I was exiled. I was home. I was homing in. And I was homing in on something. And the new poems were leading me there. 

So I did something I hadn’t done before, which was to take the poems I was working on after moving and work on them and revise them as intensively as if I had been with them for years. For me, that means I‘m able to trust them as poems I know well and as poems that still feel so new I don’t quite understand them.

I think what’s happening in “Green Side Up” and in Exile Home was that I was exploring those ideas and two things formally. I was always interested in how William Carlos Williams accelerates the line and I always wanted to figure out how to do that. That’s something I wanted to do with the whole book – to accelerate the line. And part of that is starting the new line in the middle of the line. I’m not sure it works. Some people think it works. I was trying to accelerate the line inside the line. The other thing I was trying to do – in “Green Side Up” and in Exile Home – was that I spent a lot of time revisiting the great Robert Creeley, who I had no real relationship with but who influences me a lot. In the two volumes of his collected, the poems just run into each other. I wanted to write a book where the poems just ran into each other, where there were no breaks. I wanted the poems to run into a story. My publisher was a little surprised and said, “Do you really want to do this?” And I said: “Why not? That’s how it ought to read.”

SM: Do you feel like the finished product reads like your vision manifest or is it different looking back?

MS: I’m still trying to understand Exile Home. I read what’s inside and remember why I wrote the poems but it feels so new to me I’m not sure. So a qualified, yes, it holds to the vision. But ask me again in a year!

Physically, it is a beautiful book. The painting fragment by Katherine Koch, which wraps around the whole cover, is almost breathtaking. And Bill Lavender, who designed my last five books, did a great job making it look like an old New Directions cover but he did it in color instead of black and white. 

I guess the poems are okay!

SM: I guess that’s all we can really hope for at the end of the day. As a writer, the most you can ask is for it to be okay – anything beyond that is up to the reader to decide.  

MS: When I was at Columbia, my goal was to be the best poet but now I realize what a stupid goal that was. (Laughs). Now my goal is to write the best poems and best books I can – whether it is translation or my own work. Just to do the best job I can do. Right now, my chocolate Labrador Retriever is at my feet and I think: If I have a chocolate lab licking my feet and can write poetry, what else is there to do?

SM: And now, I have one last question: What are you reading?

MS: As I mentioned before, my big project is a deep reading of modern and contemporary Mexican poetry. Because other than a few names, Octavio Paz, Ramon Lopez Velarde, José Emilio Pacheco, I was pretty deficient in my knowledge. So a few of the modern poets I’ve been reading include Rosario Castellanos, Ali Chumacero, José Juan Tablada, Efraín Huerta, and Jaime Sabines. Of some of the more contemporary, the most important for me are David Huerta, Maria Baranda, Marco Antonio Campos, Elsa Cross, and Gloria Gervitz. Gervitz’s book, Migraciones, is extraordinary. She worked on it for years and years and it took me a year to read it. I would read a section, two, three, and then for three more days, a week, just go back and read those again. But those are just a few of the poets on my mind this second.

I’m also working with a wonderful Oaxacan poet, Efraín Velasco Sosa, on an anthology of younger Mexican poets, mostly those born after 1966. That year is significant because in 1966 a ground-breaking anthology came out, Poesía en Movimiento (Mexico 1915-1966), which created a kind of map for Mexican poetry. We’re looking to do something similar to recognize poets in Mexico who, despite being extraordinary, somehow have gone largely unnoticed.

Come see Mark Statman read for The Columbia Review on October 16th at 7:00 PM. The reading will be held at the Postcrypt Coffeehouse venue. 

Mark Statman’s other readings are:

17 October—at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, from 7-9 with Lynne Sachs

22 October—Voices of Poetry: Back in the Village, at Jefferson Market Library, 6 PM, with Katherine Koch, Keisha-Gaye Anderson, Gillian Cummings, George Guida, and Heather Treseler.

1 November at McNally Jackson, 7-8:30 with Wanda Phipps and Val Vinokur