Samantha Zighelboim '11 (left, (c) Alexis Baldwin) and Julia Guez '11 (right, (c) Wesley Mann)

A Poet's Life: On Making, On Being, On Surviving with Julia Guez '11 and Professor Samantha Zighelboim '11

BY Rebecca Pinwei Tseng, January 27, 2022

A Poet's Life is a series where we talk with Columbia poets about everything from living as a poet to making a living as a poet.


Here, we speak with alumnae Julia Guez '11 and Assistant Professor Samantha Zighelboim '11 about their translation of the poetry collection Equestrian Monuments by Luis Chaves.


The collection is now available for pre-order from After Hours Editions.


Guez is the author of In an Invisible Glass Case Which Is Also a Frame (Four Way Books, 2019). Her poetry, prose, and translations have appeared in PoetryGuernicaThe GuardianKenyon ReviewPEN Poetry Series, and The Brooklyn Rail. Four Way Books will be releasing her next collection of poems, The Certain Body, in 2022. Guez teaches creative writing at Rutgers and is the Senior Managing Director of Program Design and Implementation at Teach For America New York.


Zighelboim is the author of The Fat Sonnets (Argos Books, 2018). She is a 2017 NYFA/NYSCA Fellow in Poetry, a recipient of a Face Out grant from CLMP, and the recipient of the 2016 John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize in Translation from The Poetry Foundation. Her poems, translations, and essays have appeared in POETRYBoston ReviewLit HubThe GuardianPEN Poetry SeriesGuernicaStonecutterFanzine, and The Poetry Society of America, among others. She teaches Creative Writing at Columbia University and Parsons School of Design at The New School.

How did you come to work on translating Equestrian Monuments together?


Julia Guez (JG): I got a letter from the Fulbright Commission in my second year at Columbia, awarding me a fellowship. It sent me to Costa Rica for a year to research some of the literary activities—festivals, presses, workshops, lecture circuits, and writers doing amazing work—that I wasn't seeing in my inbox at this magazine of poetry and translation where I was working. I thought that we were missing something and I'm more convinced now that we were missing a lot. I moved into translating a couple of writers and one name kept coming up. Finally, somebody emailed me and said, "You should meet Luis Chaves," and organized a dinner party at a bookstore…Chaves had a beer, I had an espresso, and he gave me these books. I spent a lot of time with his work, and I couldn't quite find my way through it in the ways I wanted to. I was having drinks with Samantha after a series of cool dinners, and I remember saying, "I'm reading this really cool poet, and I don't think we have any poets quite like him here. I'd like to work on translating him together."


Samantha Zighelboim (SZ): Yes, we had met at Columbia and knew we really respected each other's work. When Julia asked me to be a part of this, I was so excited, but also kind of shocked. These poems are incredible. It was such a thrill to think about translating together and also nurturing a friendship together. That was a momentous evening. I think we started translating the week after. Our collaboration, in the beginning, was so full of energy and we were so in love with the poems. We started with the longest poem in the book, "Equestrian Monuments," the title poem. We devised this very organic way to go through each part, each poem, each word, each punctuation mark, and the rest just kind of unraveled from there.


JG: We probably assumed that night—we'd had a couple of margaritas and at least three or four tacos—we were committing to something for six weeks or six months. That was 2013. Here we are in 2021. The book is coming out in a matter of weeks and we have changed houses, gotten married, we have had children, we have lost cats, we have had cats, we have lost people close to us, and we've met new folks. The map of this has expanded beyond what either one of us was thinking.


We would tuck away for these epic translating sessions and in one of them, we were at Sam's apartment at the time, and I remember taking a pause and looking up at Sam's shelves. You know this by knowing her, but also just by being in the space she's curated, that she's versed in so many different literatures. This really mattered when it came to understanding the place this book had in contemporary Costa Rican letters, but also the place we wanted to ensure it would have in this culture, for this audience, and for our readers.


SZ: Julia's talking about my bookshelf, but her bookshelf is pretty amazing too and is organized by Elizabeth Ballard, her wife, who is a mastermind at these things. Julia, you bring so much knowledge of the world Chaves lives in because you lived in it. You went there, you've translated other Costa Rican poets, you've gone to the workshops and readings. It was invaluable to have somebody who was bringing the culture and the experience of the culture into a work of translation.


I love how this project has been a witness to your lives over so many years. In the translator's note, you detail the initial steps of translating the book: "In the beginning, our aim was simply to be generative. We wanted to come up with as many counterfactuals as we could, so we would list all our options out, each separated by a backslash, without much editorializing." Could you share more about this generative approach to translation and why it was beneficial when first tackling the project?


SZ: We had so much fun in this phase because we did not think twice about any of the options we were spewing out. There would be a word or a phrase and we would just ad-lib at each other the possible meanings. This was a moment where I really respected Julia's way of note-taking because we would set up the possibilities and they were separated by back-slashes. This became an impromptu system where we just let ourselves dream about the language.


JG: We had to trust the process. We had to trust that we could potentially get far away from something in order to fully understand where it might ultimately want to be. Sam came across this line in a pamphlet Ugly Duckling Press put out, Say Translation is Art by Sawako Nakayasu: "The micro-erotics of choosing this word over that word, of choosing this word and that word, of breathing heavily into a space that may or may not have been there all along."


Imagining that space for ourselves—as writers who identify as women, as writers who identify as queer, as writers who know the delicacy of translating anything from one subculture to another, one culture to another, one world to another—that was micro-erotic. There was so much agency and power in shaping this poem in English and thinking about selection—what we were not going to center and what we would. The stakes felt high.


SZ: It was exhaustive, but it was thrilling, and we laughed our asses off. We didn't have books out yet; we were just baby poets, and we plowed through it with such faith in the endgame. It was really beautiful.


Could you share some of the challenging lines and how you approached them?


SZ: One that's coming to mind immediately is "tick-tack," which we went back and forth on forever.


JG: The sound the windmills make—"the internal tick-tack."


SZ: Chaves had written it as: "tic tac." Julia said, "I think we [should] leave it like that," and I said, "I think he's trying to say 'tick tock,' like a clock." She said no, and ultimately she was right. It was such an interesting moment of, "I know this is supposed to sound one way, but maybe it's also supposed to mean something."


JG: I remember moments where we would arrive at the idea of rain "veining the window," or the crickets "came on" like a fan would, or like a light. There were a couple of other moments where something would get super realistic in the text, sort of magical. We had to locate ourselves in this surreal, hyper-real space, such that we could orient the reader toward a similar set of rooms without over-determining or intervening in an experience we trust our readers to have alone with Chaves, with us simply holding the curtains up. Another virtue of this taking as long as it needed is that our culture has changed, which would lead us to collaboratively interrogating certain ways that queerness, the female form, and obesity, as three particulars, were presented in the source text, according to the logic at work in the source culture.


SZ: I'm so glad we arrived at it when we did because the cultural lexicon has shifted towards a place of inclusivity and gentleness toward each other in our language. We see it with the "x's" that have started appearing in Spanish, which is a gesture of change because Spanish is a gendered language. So instead of using the "a" or "o," people are using "Latinx." Those changes are happening, but very gradually.


Chaves is somebody who does talk about fatness in his work because it's been a part of his life. However, the words he used sometimes, like the word "obesity," which most people don't think twice about using, is actually very offensive for fat people because it's medicalized, clinical, and doesn't describe our lived experience. So we went back to that. There were three instances in the book, one which used the word "obesity," which we cut, and other instances where he was referring to gaining weight or getting fat. We really worked with those to make them the kindest, most inclusive language we could, because we are translating into a language and culture that is thinking about these things actively.


As translators, where do you see the responsibilities of the translator to the poet and to the reader differing or overlapping?


JG: That's a good question. One thing I want to say that sort of touches back on the last question is that I don't think Costa Rica is any more patriarchal than the United States of America. We are patriarchal in different ways, and I think at the heart of both systems is what bell hooks would call the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. But the manifestations are different. To your question now, which I love, I'd say there's sort of a third term. Before I am working in service of any poet, and I take that work very seriously, and before I'm working in service of any readers of poetry, and I take that role very seriously, too, I'm working in service of the poem. Part of that explains why, when carrying a poem into this culture, into this century, published in this state, in this city, by these two women, I owe it to everybody, but the poem first and foremost, to remove unnecessary distractions, and certainly to remove anything that may not have intended to land harmfully. That's not to say I'm rewriting anybody or improving anybody, it's to say I'm understanding that [particular poems], without anything contextualizing them, would cause a certain harm or a set of impacts that are not intended.


SZ: It's interesting because the translator is responsible for the original text and the original culture, but we also have a responsibility to make that land with another culture and another set of readers. I feel responsible to both, but always more responsible to the original and the original author because that's the heart of the project. When we first started translating, we were attached to the book. There came a time when we edited the manuscript without looking at the original, because we had gone through it so many times, and it was time to hear it without the Spanish. That was the phase where we thought, "Our responsibility at this moment is to the English-speaking reader, so let's hear how this sounds. Does it make us feel the same way reading Chaves's book for the first time in Spanish made us feel?" Then of course we returned to the Spanish.


We also had the gift of being able to work with Chaves and ask him questions. He gave us the creative agency we needed to do the work, and that was a true gift because I think often translators work with writers who are sort of rigid about their understanding of how a translation could work. But Chaves was so open to every possibility we brought to the table. He was with us a hundred percent of the way. He sometimes clarified things. He sometimes obfuscated things, depending on what it was [laughs]. The ways we were informed and the minds at work here formed the perfect extended collaboration.


"A whole period of time can be condensed into a simple inventory," Chaves writes in "False Documentary." There are many inventory lists in "Equestrian Monuments"—lists of objects, of observations. How does the poetic form of the list work to capture time, feeling, and meaning?


SZ: I love a list poem. There's something methodical about it that tricks you into thinking it's more organized than it is. For Chaves—and this is something that our friend and colleague (alumnus) Ricardo Maldonado '08 brought up—the act of listing in order to remember or quantify one's lived experience is a kind of anxious need to record everything. That anxiety of enumerating things is something that's very present in Chaves's work. His work is so brilliant because he's talking about these ordinary, everyday things, but at the heart of these lists, we see that the mind at work is working furiously to remember and plan and document, and that speaks to the emotional drive behind these seemingly quotidian lists. There's a list in "Equestrian Monuments" that is a short list of supermarket items but also a list of all the other things we need to be doing at the same time. I have anxiety, so I know that when you're thinking about one problem, 10 other problems like to show up. I think that [Chaves] thought, "let's chart all the problems and put them in an itemized list to make a bigger picture."


JG: "Equestrian Monuments" is a litany, which takes the list-making impulse to a super-religious level. Within it, there are these lists about calling the gardener, remembering the gardener’s number, and so on. I want to read an original line from "False Documentary" because it has a word that's really cool in the Spanish and worth unpacking in English as well:


"Es así, todo período se puede reducir a una simple enumeración."


This whole time of life can be summarized in a series of bullets.


What's interesting is that poetry is 112%, not that. So I think Chaves is playing with what we can do here. What is the province of poetry and what is prose pertaining to the daily, ordinary, domestic, private world, and what might be made public? This idea about list-making is having experiences we don't know what to do with, so we have these little artifacts or threads or islands, whether it's the scotch tape, the cassette, or whatever it is. There's something that we can't totally get our arms around. There's something you can hold such that other people know what you're holding.


How has translating Equestrian Monuments influenced your own writing and creative practices?


SZ: It's kind of incredible how much Chaves's work, our ethos, and our translating have infiltrated my own writing. The Fat Sonnets, my first book, has so many lists because I was so attracted to that idea I had learned through Chaves. I also think Chaves's way of giving us a moment in time, like all the lights coming on at dusk, or a child pointing at a snowflake in the sky, these simple moments that hold such emotional import, is something I've really tried to practice. It's not looking for the most exciting thing to write about, it's [writing about] things that I'm living every day, which might seem utterly irrelevant to somebody else, but form part of my lived experience. That notion of the quotidian embodying the metaphysical, the philosophical, the existential, has really come through in my work. I also think the way Julia and I worked together hugely influenced the way I write. The level of interrogation for each and every moment of the poem is something I have taken with me.


JG: I love that. There are probably too many ways to name in terms of how translating Equestrian Monuments informs my process as a poet and translator now, but two ways worth centering are both regarding process. As a poet, I borrow a strategy that we used as translators—I bracket out a variable and say, "there's an adjective here that I don't even have options for, but I know I'm going to hold the space for it and come back later." It's almost like an equation.


The second big piece is inviting other people into my poetics. Poetry is something that I make alone and sometimes for years. The first poem of my next book, which will be out this fall, I revised for three years, and I thought every draft was perfect. Just now, I've edited a draft for the poem that I think works that I've invited my editor into, and I'm going to invite Sam, and I'm going to invite a handful of other people. I've learned that you can have all the time alone you want while also recognizing you need a community of practice. The need to invite other people into my work was underscored a thousand different ways by this collaboration.