Q&A: Carina del Valle Schorske
1. Did you always want to be a poet?
Weirdly, yes. Or at least—a writer. There’s a video of me in second grade for a school time capsule project, where the second graders interview each other, and many of my answers are eccentric. When they ask me where I’d like to take a vacation, I say “England—because of all the HISTORY!” Kind of a colonized mind moment. Much later I’d read Jamaica Kincaid’s essay “On Seeing England for the First Time,” where she visits the white cliffs of Dover after reading about them in countless poems. “They were not white; you would only call them that if the word ‘white’ meant something special to you.” Well then! Like Kincaid I think I was influenced by what I had been told was literary. The Little Princess, The Secret Garden, etc. I wanted to participate. But when they ask what’s most important to me, I say “my family, my feelings… and oh! The big book of stories I’m working on.” This is the early evidence. Soon after, I would discover that I don’t have a gift for plot, and poetry presented itself as an alternative to storytelling. Poetry permitted my precious feelings—I was an only child, a crybaby, and a precocious people pleaser—a proper place. Yikes, that alliteration! Over time I’d have to learn that my poetry couldn’t stay proper if it was actually going to help me live. Let alone others. But poetry remains a place where I can keep secrets out loud. A place for paradoxes like that.
2. What has surprised you most about your dedication to this writer’s path?
I like this question, with its implication that dedication is itself surprising. That’s definitely how I feel. Even though I’m a Taurus, I experience myself as disloyal and impatient, so the evidence of my own steadiness always takes me by surprise. Sometimes I “wake up” from rough stretches in my life and am amazed by the way I’ve unconsciously rationed my energies towards the projects or opportunities that are most likely to sustain my writing life. I think I haven’t done anything but then I see I’ve done the one thing that enables me to go on. I’m surprised to find that I’m a good enough mother to myself. Not good, but good enough. On the other hand I’m surprised to find how vivid the lifelong torments remain. I guess when I was younger I thought I’d either quit or be cured.
3. What has been inspiring you lately?
The Spanish word muchedumbre, which means something like crowd or throng or undulating mass of bodies. It has an onomatopoetic quality. And then, relatedly, that Samuel Delany quote about the St. Mark’s bathhouse: “political power comes from the apprehension of massed bodies.” These readings or talismanic words inflect all I see, including the gulls at Deer Lagoon on Whidbey Island, where I’m in residency at Hedgebrook as I answer your questions. I’m inspired by their group choreographies, the way form is always being dispersed and reasserted when I observe the flock at a distance. I’m not even sure if they think of themselves as belonging together. If they’re family or what. Sometimes there’s an eagle in there too, cruising for a meal—eagles eat gulls. But the gulls can’t let that ruin everything. I guess I’ve been trying to think a lot about the powers and pleasures of crowds in tension with the urge to stand out or escape from them.
Back indoors after my windy walk, in a different mood, I’m more inspired by the small-scale. Right now I’m wearing these two gold rings with little emeralds that my mother gave me a few weeks ago, in acknowledgment of my book deal. They were hard to accept at first because I know she wears them a lot and they look beautiful on her—I didn’t want to take. But she reminded me that she had originally given them to her mother, who gave them back to her years later. I love this circulating sense of occasion, of bendición, without a sense of ultimate ownership.
4. What is the best thing about being a poet right now? What is the most difficult?
I’ve noticed that other poets interviewed by The Poetry Project have spoken eloquently to the double bind of poetry’s recent surge in popularity, and the relationship of this surge to social media’s revolution in access. I share much of the excitement and ambivalence expressed before me, so rather than take up that refrain, I want to answer this question in a super personal way, as I feel my own identity as a poet waver. I haven’t written “a poem” in a year, and I’ve only written five or so since starting a PhD program at Columbia in the fall of 2014. I’m not claiming causality there, just coincidence. In the dense tangle of academic writing I’ve found it easier to weave my way out of the institutional trap through essays adjacent to my research. I tell editors that I’m a poet in order to make excuses for my “leaps,” because I still use image, sound, and intuition to project myself beyond sense, beyond what I think I know. Then of course I have to to work backward to see what I’m saying. I guess what I’m liking about prose is the social aspect—prose circulates, and there’s a culture of asking questions back at it. Sometimes I think we’re kinda precious about poems—that the two choices are to praise them or dismiss them. As if poems are things, rather than propositions in public space.
5. Why is translating women by women (by indigenous or nearly native speakers) important (read: necessary)?
I want to answer this question in the key of shame and loss. I’ve often observed that people with the closest relationship to a given language are the most anxious about their capacity—both technical and ethical—to translate from it. I’m talking about U.S. Dominicans worried about abusing their “American privilege” in relation to poets working in the Dominican Republic. Or second generation Cambodian immigrants stressing about how difficult it would be to render Hmong poetic practices in English. These anxieties are super valid—and let me assure you that white translators don’t have them. Or if they do, they don’t view them as disqualifying, which they’re not. People who grow up in multilingual environments know that the stakes of language are high, and tend to be particularly sensitive to the compromises, misunderstandings, powers, and perils of rendering someone else’s words in a new context. Of getting it wrong and of getting it right. Some of us have been punished for failing to preserve our “Old World” languages; some of us have been punished for preserving them too well. It’s taken me a long time to work on my Spanish and even longer to work through the knowledge that it will never be native, but rather, as you say, nearly native. I’ve come to understand these bad feelings as comprising their own language—which is ultimately a language of investment and care. It’s not Spanish that needs to be mastered (what a word!). It’s the space of translation that needs to be navigated tenderly. I want to share some work on translation that has guided my thinking here: Gayatri Spivak’s essay “The Politics of Translation,” Madhu Kaza’s special issue for Asteri(x) Journal, “Kitchen Table Translation,” John Keene’s “Translating Blackness,” and Raquel Salas Rivera’s writing on self-translation, “On Sovereignty and Self-Ownership,” as well as their book El terciario / The Tertiary. Spivak says: “Language is not everything. It is only a vital clue to where the self loses its boundaries.” That seems right to me.
Why is this important? Concretely speaking, translators often get asked to speak not only for the writer they’ve translated, but for that writer’s culture. And in some sense this isn’t wrong—ultimately a translator should be working from a holistic curiosity about the world language lives in. But it’s a problem when some of our only conversations about, say, Korean culture, are triggered by The Vegetarian, and then the translator—a person with a pretty attenuated relationship to that culture—suddenly becomes its ambassador. What else… I notice how white male translators have attempted to monopolize some of Latin America’s most prestigious women writers: Dulce María Loynaz, Clarice Lispector. Even if the translations are good, it can work as a kind of cultural colonialism. But I’m less concerned about these voices getting claimed by white men with little connection to the culture than I am about white men reinforcing, through translation, regimes of prestige that tend to favor the most Europeanized writers from non European countries. Who we choose to translate is just as important as how we choose to translate.
6. A passage from something you’ve read recently that has resonated:
I’ve been following Adrienne Rich’s essay, “Notes Towards A Politics of Location,” watching the way she dramatizes the process of thinking: “Theory—the seeing of patterns, showing the forest as well as the trees—theory can be a dew that rises from the earth and collects in the rain cloud and returns to the earth over and over. But if it doesn’t smell of the earth, it isn’t good for the earth… I wrote a sentence just now and x’d it out. In it I said that women have always understood the struggle against free-floating abstraction even when they were intimidated by abstract ideas. I don’t want to write that kind of sentence now, the sentence that begins ‘Women have always…’ We started by rejecting the sentences that began ‘Women have always had an instinct for mothering’ or ‘Women have always and everywhere been in subjugation to men.’ If we have learned anything in these years of late twentieth-century feminism, it’s that that ‘always’ blots out what we really need to know: When, where, and under what conditions has the statement been true?”
Derek Walcott in his Nobel Prize speech: “Tonally, the individual voice is a dialect.”
7. What do you think of the term “decolonization” and how we all seem to be throwing it around casually these days? Tell us about Puerto Rico. What role it plays in constructing your own terminology for “decolonization.” Thrilled for your upcoming book!
Thank you! As the framing of your question already seems to understand, it’s hard for me to attend to the more abstract meanings of “decolonization” while the most literal colonial structures remain in place— for Puerto Rico, for the U.S. Virgin Islands, for Guam, for Palestine, and for many other places and peoples throughout the world. How can we “decolonize” when our understanding of who and what remain literally colonized remains so limited? I include myself in this we. Before I “decolonize” my mind, or my reading list, or my diet, or my romantic relationships, I want to develop a clear understanding of the colonial tactics—like trade and tax laws, like monolingualism, like depopulation, like debt—that block sovereignty for a place like Puerto Rico. To paraphrase Malcolm X, it’s hard to heal while the knife’s still in your back. Life has taught me that the psychic effects of material experiences are long.
I don’t expect my body or mind to ever be free of the effects of colonialism, nor do I expect that for you—I say that in a mode of compassion.
After all, we’re talking about the long game here. Puerto Rico has the dubious distinction of being “the world’s oldest colony,” as a recent(ish) mural announces, in English, on Calle Norzgaray in Old San Juan, where the 16th century blue cobblestones shine and the beautifully restored old quarter is the jewel of the capital city—for tourists, but for Puerto Ricans, too. Our children are the ones who go to the Spanish fort at dusk to fly kites on the green lawn that sweeps down to the balustrades and the little white cemetery looking over the sea. This fort was the beginning of the end for Puerto Rican sovereignty, but now it’s where we sit and plot and curse the cruise ships crowding the harbor. Fuck a cruise ship—even though that’s how my grandmother and mother first brought me to our island, when I was 8. I ate waffles at the breakfast buffet and danced the Macarena on deck in a frenzy as the wind got wetter. Home had become hard-won, an affordable luxury. I can’t decolonize that. But I don’t have to erase that experience to protest or transform it. Like Rihanna, I’m always ANTI.
8. What is the key to a superb translation?
I’m always wary of keys! Does the door need to be locked? But if I accept the terms of your metaphor, I’d say that I want to feel that the translator has chosen to translate the work in the same way that the poet has chosen to write the poem. Maybe it’s a commission, and that’s ok. But the translator needs to connect to the part of herself that urgently seeks expression through writing. The loyalty shouldn’t be to the original as it is written, but to the original as writing—the gerund that carries the impulse towards articulation through the unarticulated field.
Of course desire shouldn’t manifest primarily as need in the manipulative sense, where the translator is demanding of the poem something the poem doesn’t have to give… as in other intimate relationships, you need to be open to what the poem can teach you about new forms for your desire. All of this to the tune of “Love the One You’re With”—the Aretha Franklin cover from Live at the Filmore West. I recommend it! A cover, after all, is a kind of translation.
9. What has been your favorite reading or moment at The Poetry Project?
I’ve spent less time at The Poetry Project than I want to, so I remember each time I’ve been very vividly. The memory that’s calling out to me now: Christina Olivares wearing Fenty beauty’s Stunna lip paint in Uncensored. I remember her mouth because she was reading from it, and later I’d purchase the same lip paint, which I’m sorry to say has the tendency to feather and bleed. That night Christina shared her essay on Audre Lorde’s archives—and the startling experience of opening a box that contained (but almost couldn’t contain) the artist’s hair. The live version at the Poetry Project included material that I can’t find in the published version at Makhzin Magazine—something about the garden in Christina’s Bronx apartment, and the way seeds, like archives, store up information that requires care to access. In order to return to that material I have to call up the whole scene in sensory detail: Christina’s lipstick, the chilly church, my chair at the end of the row and the experience of folding and loading it back up on the cart when the night was over.