2012 National Book Award Winner,
Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations
University of Chicago Press
Interview by Katie Peterson
Katie Peterson: You have had a long career in poetry and translation. How do you feel about being nominated for Bewilderment?
David Ferry: My answer to this is simple as can be. I'm absolutely delighted and flattered to be a finalist for this very distinguished award.
KP: What distinguishes this book, for you, from your other books?
DF: The main thing, I guess, is that I'm older, you might say even older, than in my previous books, and the fact that this is so shows up in a number of ways in these poems, the self-spooking of old age, sometimes amused at itself, sometimes not, the anxiety about getting it done, the experience of how one's fate is like that of others and must feel as if it were not. I don't mean that old age is the prevailing "theme" or "subject." But the fact of mortality and our consequent vulnerability has always been evident in my poems―as of course the poems of almost everybody else―though perhaps more persistently dwelt on by me. In this book, as in my earlier ones, I notice that there are many poems about people in creaturely distress, in poverty, in derangement, in disarrangement of various kinds, sometimes in the precariousness of happiness, baffled often, and, yes, bewildered. A number of such situations are in this new book, and, towards the end, the fact of an event of bereavement in my own life and that of my children, which gives a new urgency in this book to these questions, in the context of our creaturely mortal vulnerability which has always been the concern of my poems.
KP: Many of the original poems in Bewilderment whirl around, or move towards, memorable questions. (“Where was it I was looking in the past?” “What is your name that I can call you by?” “Where did you go to, when you went away?”) Where does this questioning energy come from?
DF: It's no wonder that there are such questions, their situations in the poems, personal and otherwise, being such as they are. And I think our language, our idioms, our ways of using our language, have such questions ready for the writing about them. 'Where are you? Who are you? What was it? How did it happen?' And the act of writing is itself a questioning act: What is this line going to mean? How will it say it? How will it sound? Our subjects, what our poems are "about," arise from the insides of our lines, not from external stated intentions, which can only be very roughly categorical and therefore misleading. You said it right, in our email correspondence: "Poems can be these acts not of preservation but of a fragile and fragmentary transmission of a kind." Like everybody else trying to say something, I never knew what my poems were going to say, but the poems found out, and never found it out completely. A line of verse is trying to find out what it means. Word choices, keeping the measure, line-ending decisions, are questions.
KP: You have lived deeply with other people’s words. How are the task of the translator and the task of the poet similar?
DF: They're alike in that the poet writing an “original” poem is working in exactly the same way that the poet translating somebody else's poem is working: writing lines, keeping the measure, making decisions about line-endings, listening to the developing tones of voice in not "other people's words" but his own words, his own words trying, to be sure, for as much faithfulness as possible to what he has heard and, he hopes, understood, in the lines he is translating.
KP: Bewilderment collects new poems and translations. On one page, we find mailboxes and New Jersey, and on the next, Orpheus and Eurydice. Could you talk about your process in assembling this book, and your decision to include original work and translated work?
DF: Not exactly a decision to include original work and translated work. As I just suggested, I'm not all that sure about the distinction between "original" and "translated." In any case, in this book the translations are intensely related to the poems around. For example, the Orpheus and Eurydice passage from Virgil's Georgics is meant, in the book, to be read as a poem of its own, and the poem “Lake Water” and the other bereavement poems couldn't exist without it.
KP: How do you account for your career-long interest in epic stories? What do you think ancient and classical epics have to offer the 21st-century reader?
DF: I think I'm learning a lot from the Gilgamesh and the Aeneid about how moved I am by reading them, and how they each have to do with everybody's fears and desires; while at the same time their ancientness, their difference, is a vital element in my response, in anybody's response. But I didn't come to them from a special interest in epic stories. I've come to the Aeneid and am trying to translate it because I've translated Virgil's other works; I came to the Gilgamesh because I was asked to render two passages from it into English verse, and I got hooked and then got very interested in what an ancient epic is.
Katie Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree (New Issues / Western Michigan University Press, 2006), and two forthcoming collections, The Accounts (University of Chicago, 2013) and Permission (New Issues / Western Michigan University Press, 2014). The recipient of fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, she is Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University.