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Inventing a New Language: A Conversation with Jacob Steinberg

Poet Jacob Steinberg and I were introduced by Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin, who suggested Phoneme Media consider his translation of Jacob the Mutant, a book I now hope to publish in early 2014. After meeting electronically, I learned that Steinberg would soon visit Los Angeles on his way to launch his book Ante ti se arrodilla mi silencio, published by the Kodama cartonera in Tijuana. molossus is proud to present his work to a Los Angeles audience as part of Sin Zona, a bilingual poetry event featuring Mandy Kahn, Joseph Mosconi, and Gaspar Orozco, in Silver Lake on 20 June 2013. Sin Zona takes its name from the short-lived magazine founded by Uruguayan poets Humberto Megget and Carlos Brandy, who sought to showcase work from across and outside aesthetic boundaries, a spirit that this event seeks to emulate.

Steinberg was born in Stony Brook, New York, in 1989. He studied Spanish and Latin American Literature at NYU and subsequently took graduate courses at the University of Buenos Aires. His publications include This isn’t about Jon Ross, it’s about art (2011), Magulladón (2012) and Ante ti se arrodilla mi silencio (2013). He works as a translator, and is currently preparing an English-language version of Mario Bellatin’s Jacob the Mutant for Phoneme Media. He lives in New York.

DS

antetiYou write most of your poetry in Spanish, which is your second language, right? Why is that?

First off, my undergrad degree was in Latin American lit, so in simply practical terms, my biggest influences have always been Spanish-language writers, either the avant-garde poets of the early 20th century, or the novelists from the Boom era, up to contemporary authors. I feel like the best writers are really just great readers, ones who can absorb the styles and ways of using language they read and then employ them to express their own reality. It made sense to construct my reality in the same language that most of my reading occurred in.

I also always valued the mediation implicit in writing in a second tongue. The words carried more weight, were more foreign to me, and I could hold onto a heightened degree of sensitivity to everything that I would say in Spanish. In English, I feel like my lips just spill words without much care or thought. In Spanish, every word bears a much heavier burden.

How did you first come across Mario Bellatin’s work? What compelled you to take the leap from reader to translator?

I first read Mario’s Beauty Salon in a course on representations of “monstrosities” in Latin American literature. The concept of sexual monsters and how the Derridean concept of undecidability could be applied to transvestites, cross dressers, and other sexual in-betweens—so to speak—fascinated me. Later, in New York, Mario came to lecture for the graduate students at NYU and a professor who knew I was a fan arranged for us to meet. We stayed in close contact over the years and I would often write to him with my own doubts on life and love and mysticism.

As time went on, I had to read him again and again in undergraduate and then graduate seminars. At a certain point I just felt so strongly in tune with his way of thinking, and though I had almost exclusively translated poetry up until that point, I knew that Mario might be the first novelist I could potentially work with.

Why did you start with Jacob the Mutant?

Saying that I started with Jacob isn’t entirely accurate, simply because at the time I began working on that translation, there wasn’t any sense of a trajectory to translate the Works of Bellatin in any sense of completion. I simply felt so connected to that specific text, for a number of reasons. On the one hand, I’m a dedicated student of Kabbalah whose minor was in Judaic Studies, and the role of Kabbalah in shaping the plot and understanding the very composition of the text is crucial. Further, the name itself clearly played a role in my attraction to the text. But most importantly, I think, I was drawn by the way that mutation and instability play into the text’s construction. I find Jacob the Mutant to be a perfect literary example of the post-structuralist theories with which I’ve predominantly worked in the academic world. And translation isn’t some equation where you enter text in one language and pop out the equivalent in another; it’s a meditative process, an exploration of some non-space where the right mind might be able to toy around and create something new and beautiful and hopefully akin to the original work. Translating this book felt like inventing a new language, at times, one that only I could have created.

What American poets do you think your work is in dialogue with? What about poets from elsewhere?

I recently had the revelation that every book I’ve published so far has had a quote or epigraph from Ariana Reines featured somewhere. I sometimes (semi-)jokingly call her my spirit animal. I think I learned a lot about how to be a contemporary poet from her, that modern language doesn’t need to be stale and the mystique of life can shine through the very quotidian events of the daily experience of the world. I think there’s also something shared with Gabby Bess’ short stories, that sort of overwhelmed inner monologue questioning the values and emotions behind the physical behaviors that accompany love in your early twenties. Obviously there are countless contemporary Argentine poets I learned from, but as for classics, I think there are traces of Girondo and maybe Perlongher scattered throughout my images. Certainly Cortázar’s widely overlooked love poetry, particularly his poem “Aftermath,” has crafted my approach to discussing my own shortcomings in romance.

Tell me about the Argentinian poets you’ve translated. What characterizes the work of the Generación de los 90?

My career as a translator started with Cecilia Pavón’s works, simply because I read her poetry and felt it to be so relatable and wanted to share it with friends back in the U.S. All of the Argentine 90s poets have a very direct, simple way of expressing the confluence of emotions and technology so common in life today, the overwhelm of waiting for a text message or the stress of waiting for your clothes at the laundromat. There’s something so relevant to these types of day-to-day interactions that is expressed so beautifully in this simple, contemporary language. Marina Alessio is another poet and friend I admire a lot. She has a way of elevating the mundaneness of urban drifter life in your 20s and 30s to the level of poetry. She edits all of my work in Spanish for me, thank god. Tamara Kamenszain describes the Generación de los 90 as writing “without metaphor,” stripping language down to its lowest common denominator, which we all share, something accessible to any reader.

Practically speaking, how does a New York poet get involved with a cartonera in Tijuana?

My first contact with cartoneras happened, of course, with the Eloísa Cartonera in 2009 when I was first living in Buenos Aires. I don’t know how strongly I believe that true social change can be effected through cartoneras (another NYU student did a thesis project on this question with interesting conclusions), but at the very least I still believe strongly in the book-as-object, or the allure of the physical item. Last year I edited an e-book called Cityscapes, with pieces from writers the world over capturing their urban landscapes in poems and short stories. Aurelio Meza wrote a piece and subsequently invited me to put together a book for Kodama to consider. It seemed like a good opportunity to create a beautiful piece of art out of my poetry, to meet new poets and explore a new place. I’m glad it’s come out as Ante ti se arrodilla mi silencio. I’m more proud of this book than anything else I’ve done in my writing career. Kodama gave me complete control and catered to any and every specific request I had. For a press so willing to respect the writer’s vision and creativity, I’d travel to Mars if needed. Tijuana, fortunately, lay a bit closer.

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