Noelle Kocot’s translations of French maudite Tristan Corbière will be released tomorrow as Poet by Default ($15), by Wave Books in an edition of 500, handsewn with letterpress-printed covers. Corbière was widely popularized when selected by Verlaine for his gallery of verse maudite. Though he died at age 29, having published just one collection, heremains an influential figure in French literature, and influenced English-language poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, too. The collection’s title poem, “Poet by Default,” exhibits Corbière’s characteristic wit and sarcasm, toying with romanticized notions of the poet. “…And in his poor disarrayed / Head, still he feels the hexameter- / Verse pace up and down. // —Ill-prepared to live—he survived— / And—ill-prepared to die—he wrote.” he wrote.”
I’m always interested in what first attracts a translator to the poets they translate, and even more so in this case since you’re a poet yourself. Why Corbière?
I always liked Corbiere’s work even better than Baudelaire’s, and I didn’t find much of him translated into English. Since my French is good, I wanted to do it. I think Joshua Beckman might have suggested translation to me as an undertaking. I had done a little translation in college, but not much, and I wanted more people to know Corbiere’s beautiful work.
How does your process of translating a poem compare to the process of writing a poem?
Writing a poem is easy for me. Usually happens at least once a day and takes about five or ten minutes tops (but I really pay for it and spend the rest of the day brewing them). Translation is really, really difficult for me. It’s always so halting, trying to find the exact right word, so precise and painstaking. Also, it goes very slowly for me, very. Also, it’s like this big added responsibility—there is a whole other poet’s work at stake. I revise a lot when I translate, but hardly at all when I write my own poems.
Do you find translating complimentary to your own writing?
I think it’s somewhat complimentary because the sense of the translation goes on to really inform the work I’m writing next. I can’t really write and translate at the same time. The translation process is so intimate, that this other poet’s work really gets under my skin so much. Definitely, there is an influence.
What are you working on now? More Corbière? What are you reading, watching, listening to?
I’m not translating at present, just writing a whole mess of poems all the time. I’m reading different books on economics and also animal magazines right at the present moment, I’m also a written news junky, a book of poetry here and there, I watch the birds and the cats, and I listen to my vast music collection—right now, Xenakis, Coltrane, Damon Tomblin. But I’m always changing from week to week. I tend to be a real student of life—I study other people, animals, situations. I pray a lot.
Thanks for talking, Noelle. I like Poet by Default a lot; it’s a great introduction to Corbière’s work.