For many American readers, In Time’s Rift will be the first introduction to the German poet Ernst Meister. Published by Wave Books, the collection consists of short, concise poems that “at once entice and irritate the mouth and mind,” as translators Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick write in their introduction. Staff writer Gina Myers recently sat down with Foust, who is the author of several collections of poetry, to discuss the new book of translations.
Frontier Psychiatrist: How did this project come about? Did you have experience prior to this book doing translations? What got you interested in translating this particular writer?
Graham Foust: I’ve been working on these poems since about 2004 because Jack Davis, this guy who lives in Canada and has something to do with sitting in fire towers during the summer, wrote me this letter because he had read one of my books and he said it was strange to see an American poet influenced by Ernst Meister, and I was like I have no idea who that is. So we corresponded for a bit about that. And it was funny, right after he sent me that letter, I read at Woodland Pattern, and I was looking at this wall of poetry books kind of overwhelmed, but I saw this British selected poems of Ernst Meister’s called Not Orpheus done by Richard Dove, who is this well known translator of German, so I bought it and read it, and was like, yeah, I totally get why he said that. I felt an immediate kinship with the book. But the translations seemed a little weird, or wooden, or not very poem-y. They seemed more like sketches for what a poem could be, so I just started teaching myself German and tried to retranslate the poems. The poems aren’t really in any order, but I didn’t know that at the time. So I would just kind of work on it when I didn’t have things of my own to do and that went on for several years, maybe six years. And then I met my dad’s wife’s daughter’s husband who is a German professor–that’s Sam. And I was like well this guy will surely have heard of Ernst Meister, and he was like I don’t know who the fuck that is. It wasn’t that he was uninterested, he was just like, who is this guy? So I sent him the poems, and he said they were amazing poems but the translations – eh. So he asked if we wanted to work together, and we did. And the focus of this was that no one had done a whole book of his in English before, they just sort of cherry-picked poems throughout his corpus. But his last three books are sort of a trilogy, so we decided to do the last three books.
FP: And In Time’s Rift is his second to last?
Yes, it’s the middle one. The last one, Wallless Space, Wave is going to do, and we’re finishing the draft of the first volume, Of Entirety Say the Sentence, now. We’re currently just have the rights to do the last two.
FP: Meister was a prolific writer, even considering the huge break he took from writing during his lifetime. Why translate these particular books?
GF: Some of his early poems rhyme, so they have their own weird difficulty. These poems he was writing toward the end are short, but they really work as books. For me they feel like long poems in sections, but they work on their own too.
FP: Has this process improved your German language skills?
GF: Not speaking it. But translating his poems has gotten easier for me. There’s so much of the same–he plays with a lot of the same, like any great poet, like Stevens or Dickinson–like snow, leaves, the same stuff circulates over and over so you get used to it. So now it goes a lot faster. And Sam is fluent–he’s a German professor. At the start, I gave him all the ones I had already translated and we worked on them, and now he’ll just do a sketch translation. He can do them in five minutes, but it might take us six months to nail the poem, but he can look at it and be, well, this is basically what it says.
FP: This seems like a popular approach to translation, a team with one person who is an expert in the language and another who knows poetry and understands craft.
GF: Yes, Sam and I work well in that capacity. We’ll spend a lot of time together micromanaging some issue, but at the outset he’s not really interested in making it poem-y. He’s just here’s what this means, you deal with it for awhile and send it back to me, and I’ll accept or reject whatever it is you’ve done to it.
FP: Will you do more translations after these three books?
I’m working on these Beckett translations right now. Late in his life Beckett would sit in these coffee shops and these bars and write these little rhyming poems in French, so I’ve translated those. I’ve asked my friend Alissa Heinzman about working on them together, and so we’re going to do that. I don’t actually have permission to do it, and I don’t know anything about the Beckett estate, but it seems like they are pretty hardcore with their concern of how the plays are produced, so it may be kind of just for fun.
FP: How have your translations influenced your own writing?
GF: It’s shut it down in some ways. I mean, I’m working on new poems, but it’s been a nice break. It’s caused me to think about poems and think about what I want to do. Meister, I don’t know, I feel like he is always trying to go somewhere, get to a place. It is making me think about what direction I want to move in. I’m writing all of these poems in eleven syllable lines now because this new book that is coming out from Flood is all prose, so I wanted to keep a longer line than normal, but not prose, which is no line, so I decided on eleven syllables, but I don’t know that that really has anything to do with Meister. I think that because I was working on translations that I have to have some sort of given, like some sort of thing to grab onto, so I know that whatever I am working on has to be in eleven syllable lines, so at least I don’t have to think about that part of it.
FP: When you work on poems, do you see them as projects or as a book?
GF: I think about the formal element as a kind of project as in this is what I am doing now, but I don’t think of it as a book project. I’ll write 100 poems and maybe 40 of them will make it into a book and the rest will just be garbage. When you sit down to figure out which poems you want to keep, then you might try to make it a book. The poems in my books could probably be in a different order. There’s a point where the book really becomes just a container for the poems.
FP: And a lot of people don’t read books of poems in order anyway.
GF: I never read poems in order, I mean, maybe I will once.
How then should
a brain and bone,
produced how, who
knows, you flowers,
adapt in the
street of stars, where it
milk and most sufferably
births itself from it,
Ernst Meister, Untitled poem from “In Time’s Rift”
Gina Myers is a staff writer and the author of A Model Year. She recently reviewed The Avett Brothers’ new album and show in Atlanta, where she lives, and D. Nurkse’s new poetry collection A Night in Brooklyn, where she used to live. She has also interviewed many indie authors, including James Tadd Adcox, Dan Magers, Brian Oliu, and Justin Sirois.