A Radical History of the World: Fred D’Aguiar talks to Leo Boix

A few hours before the poet, novelist and playwright Fred D’Aguiar was preparing to launch his eighth collection, Translations from Memory (Carcanet, 2018), I met with him to talk about his new work, one that will no doubt cement his standing as one of the most important Guyanese writers of the twentieth century. D’Aguiar talked of his many subjects and inspirations for his latest book, about his ample readings of Latin American poets, as well as the major themes in his oeuvre such as memory and translation, racism and the legacy of slavery. On reading Translations from Memory, I was impressed by how effortlessly D’Aguiar manages to weave together memoir, history, and critical race theory in ways that deepen our understanding of his poetics. His erudite work confronts us with the richness of his multifarious poetry readings. D’Aguiar published his first book of poetry, Mama Dot (named after his grandmother), in 1985, notable for its fusion of standard English and Nation language. Nine years later, he published his first novel, The Longest Memory, which depicts slavery in the United States. His many awards include the Malcolm X Prize for Poetry (Mama Dot) and the Guyana Prize for Literature (Dear Future).

LB: Translations from Memory is the title of your eighth poetry collection, and in it you explore many subjects and authors, philosophies and historical themes, from Horace and Ovid, to St Thomas Aquinas and Dante, through George Seferis, Nelson Mandela, Aimé Césaire and Alfred Hitchcock. Can one read this as a personal encyclopaedia of your world? How did you decide which subjects to include and which to leave out?

FD: Poetry is everything that gets lost in translation, so I was very aware as a lifelong reader who writes and a writer who reads that when I recall a book or an idea it’s always in terms of my teaching or moments with the students. Then I felt: ‘Oh yeah, they understood that because of the example or because of the feedback and how we arrive at a conclusion.’ So I realised that my readings were actually instructing me how I read, and also how I write, by how I recall. Since I’ve done a lot of reading, and have a really firm idea of the canon, and trained for years in poetry – and am still training, and failing – I thought it’d be really good at this stage to evaluate what is left of all that reading.

LB: While reading Translations from Memory the work of the Argentinean poet and short story writer Jorge Luis Borges came to mind, in particular the fascinating ways in which he approached universal literary subjects. He loved encyclopaedias, historical biographies and dictionaries. How do you relate to these encompassing entries?

FD: I’m glad you mentioned Borges. He is one writer I didn’t put in because it would give away all of my procedure. Sometimes you have to erase your tracks as a poet, otherwise it’s too easy for the reader. I realised that by declaring Borges I would have told them exactly some of my loves – Gabriel García Márquez, Borges, Neruda. If I put in Neruda, Borges, Márquez, Alejo Carpentier, I’d be telling them what my Caribbean reading has been and that would be too easy. I didn’t want to give it all away as instruction; I wanted it to be discovery. For me the poetry is all about not delivering something to the reader so much as arriving empty-handed.

LB: The idea of memory recurs in your collection, not only in the title of your book, but also on close reading of your poems. From literary and cultural to personal, political and communal memories. How important is the idea of remembering or the ‘echo of an echo’ in your work?

FD: Robert Lowell said that memory is something imagined, not recalled. I think what he meant was that we shouldn’t be in service to memory without some kind of artifice: an acknowledgement that we come to the table of recall with some structure, some kind of poetics, and that the poetics should rule, that they should throw out anything in the memory that doesn’t work for a poem’s procedure. I think I’ve been doing that because I am aware of politics, and race and history. These have been really strong subjects for me and I insist on being aligned with them. But at the same time, I really do love a line that seems to stand in the air without any gravitational pull. I admire that. So I think that’s a negotiation – it’s definitely a notion that they’re both locked in some kind of conversation.

LB: In your sequence ‘Tidal’ you recount historically factual stories of slaves in England, from a mulatto man/woman/child buried in Gravesend, Kent, in 1603, or a slave called Charles baptised at St Clement Danes in 1675, to a black woman hanged in the Tyburn Tree in London, in 1663. Can you tell me more about these stories and how they came to be part of your book?

FD: I had a residency at Liverpool University, where there is project called ‘Tide’ which brings together historians, literary critics and teachers just to see how they work together to pursue their own research. Most of it is embedded in history and recovery. So when I got there I thought, ‘What do I do with a fragment that just appears to be abandoned, with nothing else to go on?’ And the first poem of the book, ‘Museum Gilgamesh’, is all about fragments. If you have a very tiny fragment you have to grow it into something as they do in laboratories. I thought that was the responsibility of the poet, where history stops, and in a sense you begin because you have to – because if you don’t, the fragment is all you have. And you have to feel an emotional responsibility for, say, a lost life, or a lost set of lives, or an injustice as massive as slavery. I also think about this Faulkner idea: ‘The past is never past.’ I felt these fragments are pinging at us, they have a kind of coordinate that’s asking us to discover them and talk to them – they are not lost. They have a transponder box at the bottom of the sea and you can find them as they were. I’m tuned into that pinging sound. I always feel that if something bad happened to someone and they couldn’t answer back, it would be my duty to speak on their behalf. I lean towards that natural moral universe.

LB: You were born in London but grew up in the South American country of Guyana, and now live in the US, where there are at least forty-five million Hispanic and Latino Americans. How do you think language, multilingualism and cultural translations play a part in your ongoing formation as a writer and poet?

FD: I teach at UCLA, which is not far from the US–Mexican border, and there is a large Mexican/South American population in LA. When they arrive in the city they always try to work with English and their language, as you do. And there is always a fertile land between their bilingualism and the English they occupy, as a lifelong endeavour, carefully nuanced, based on reading. I think that negotiation happens, especially when I teach students and they come in with bilingual poems. There are a bunch of American poets writing… not Spanglish exactly, but certainly writing and always registering Spanish inside of English. I think that is where language is going in America – it is away from some kind of edifice of English, where you throw away complexities of other languages. You develop a feeling that this has a Spanish rhythm to it. Is it flamenco? You can feel something bubbling in the poem, and because of that I feel that there is a real change in contemporary poetics. So I am attentive to it, especially as I am getting older and younger poets are coming up and doing that. You have to look at their instruction.

LB: There is also the mass movement of people across the world taking their language to their adopted country, for example Venezuelans trying to cross to Guyana, or Mexicans to the US. How do you relate to that movement of people, languages, cultures?

FD: I think about this all the time. I am a part of that movement: my parents moved, I moved. These days the rarer thing is if someone says: ‘I’ve been here 45 years’ or ‘I am not going anywhere.’ This Philip Larkin idea that you stay where you are and that if you go somewhere you must come back the same day. Yes, I am aware of Guyana’s currents. There are more Guyanese abroad than there are in Guyana. That is true for most modern countries. The land mass of Guyana is only 28,000 kilometres square smaller than the UK, so it is a massive place in terms of its emptiness, its jungle interior, and so on. Wilson Harris has written about that. Martin Carter has written as a poet of the city, but he’s been attuned to the idea of the bush, the wild, that’s informing a kind of urban imagination. The migratory patterns are all economic and historical, political and linguistic. There are three Guyanas: Dutch, French and English, and that tells you right away about colonialism. You can’t really ignore it unless you stick your head in the sand, or try to do a poetry of negation.

LB: I was fascinated by this idea of translation as a way of reinterpreting, reading or simply decoding a language as a preconceived system of ideas and notions. In which ways do you think about translation when you write?

FD: The second I pick up a pen, but also in my library, I have access to many poets in translation. I fell in love with poetry and with the prose of writers like Neruda, but in English. I read these poets both in Spanish and in translation, though I am proficient in English and woefully lacking in Spanish (I read with a dictionary and with any sound files of the poet that I can lay my hands on). I do not claim to be a speaker of Spanish. I’m surrounded by it and I hear and understand much of it, but I read Spanish with the help of dictionaries and with as much as I can hear of the original. I always admire poets who spend their lives translating. Without translation, you would cut down a major stream of the imagination.

LB: In your latest collection you show a learned knowledge of classical writers, historical epochs, classical philosophy and modern poetry. How closely do you read around the subjects you explore? Have you read Leibniz or Spinoza in depth or are you more inspired by a general idea, or biographies of their work?

FD: A mix. That is a really good question. Did I study them first and then write the poem? Not in depth, not all of them, but some. So with Karl Marx, I spent years trying to read Das Kapital, progressing deeper into the book, dipping into it, hearing about it, going to speeches by people who are Marxists, who are telling you how to change the world. There have been perpetual returns to certain texts, individual books, but the key is not to show too much. If you declare your learning, step by step, you are writing an essay. You have to be very, very careful in writing about someone to say something. You want to see what poetry can do in negotiation with the text – what is it that the poem can do without surrendering all of its ground to understanding? That was the danger. So all the time when I felt the poem was too much like an instruction manual, I erased it. It had to chant, it had to sing in some way, and that is where I think the poetry began. Before, it was warming up, which could be very frustrating if you were thinking, for example, to write a poem about Immanuel Kant. What does he mean by that? I walk backwards from that point and see if I can get to a connection with the idea that I’ve been trying to talk about. If the library is going to be carried, at what point do I put that burden down because what I have left from the text is exactly what I need for the poem to flow?

LB: You seem to be also very interested in form…

FD: Charles Olson says that form is an extension of content. He was kicking and kicking against the tradition because he wanted to write a freer, projective verse. But he realised that there was a heavily formal procedure involved in bucking tradition. I took from Olson that form and content conspire in the enactment of the poem – that the sparks generated by the two make the poem an event, a happening ‘thang’. So the sonnets might tilt a little bit towards content and refuse closure, refuse that final plodding step of the fourteen lines and how it works. Everything that is formal declares itself. Architecturally it looks at you and says: look at me. It folds its hands and fends you off. I’ve been interested in fractures, in fragilities, as an act of writing.

LB: Your concluding poems in the collection are on the poets Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite, both masters of language and form, and widely considered two of the major voices in the Caribbean literary canon. Were you trying to link a past to a future lineage of writing here, to somehow connect these voices to yours? Do you celebrate their work and legacy by way of deconstructing and reassembling new poetic possibilities?

FD: Yes. People always write about poets when they’re dead. (Well, Derek Walcott is; Kamau Brathwaite isn’t.) But when I wrote those poems I was thinking, how am I reading them? I’ve always read them since high school or secondary school, so it has been a long engagement with their work, followed by a separation to make sure I don’t sound too much like them. But they are both very different as Caribbean writers. You can see the differences in their islands, in what they produce, across that generation. So I am very keen to re-evaluate their work as an act of reading. It is an act of both homage and piracy. Jump in and take what you can and run as fast as you can before they trap you with their excellence. I don’t see influence as a bad thing. I see it as something to do with your growth as a reader.

Leo Boix is a poet, translator and journalist born in Argentina who lives and works in the UK. His poetry has been included in anthologies such as Ten: Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe, 2017). He is a fellow of The Complete Works Program and co-director of ‘Invisible Presence’, a UK national scheme to nurture young Latinx-British poets.

Fred D’Aguiar’s most recent collection, his seventh, is Translations from Memory (Carcanet, 2018). He teaches at UCLA. 


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