Greatest Women in Translation: Juana Adcock

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

This month, I talk to Juana Adcock, poet and translator working in English and Spanish, nominated by Robin Myers.

Juana Adcock

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1. Juana is your pen name. Your real name is Jennifer. Why did you decide to change it?

I changed my name to Jane when I was 13, which is also the year I started writing poetry. I loved the freedom of being able to build my own voice and identity as a writer, rather than being constrained by other people’s very narrow definitions of normality. I grew up in a very conservative, religious and misogynistic environment in northern Mexico, and literature and writing was the only space where I could be truly free. My earliest feminist publications online brought with them some frightening episodes of online harassment (I’m not sure we even had a term for it back then) and I not only felt it was much safer to publish under a fake name, I also assumed it was the done thing, particularly for women writers. In my early twenties I also started playing in bands, which led to a whole subset of monickers – some people still call me Jennivora, the name I used for a solo music project which never quite took off. I used to be really worried about being seen as a Jack of all trades and one way to try and be taken seriously was to keep all my identities separate: as a writer, a musician and a translator. I also wanted to protect my professional reputation and make sure I would still be able to write and publish whatever I wanted and still be able to get a job. Would prospective employers want to hire someone who had published feminist erotic stories or overtly political poems? Or who played in loud punk bands? My fear that they wouldn’t was well-founded. In those days in Mexico many employers refused to hire people with tattoos, for example, and I once filled out a job application which asked me at the very start what religion I was, whether I was married, and how many times I’d been pregnant. (And still now it’s common practice in Mexico for women to have to take pregnancy tests before they get hired, which must be just the tip of the iceberg for other illegal, discriminatory practices.) At the time I never thought I could make a living as a freelance literary translator, or that my writing or music might one day actually help rather than hinder my professional career. The name Juana came as a derivation of Jane while I was still in Mexico but was pretty handy for marketing purposes when I first moved to the UK and I began to offer Spanish tuition as a way to earn some cash while I was doing my masters in creative writing. This led to some confusion as some people thought that Juana was my real name and I was changing it to Jennifer to make myself seem more English, like I was that eager to integrate. In fact it was the opposite: a complete refusal to integrate. Increasingly, I felt that living as Jennifer would erase all of my Mexicanness, and the cost felt too high. It’s only until very recently that I understood any of this, or how ingrained these false beliefs were, and how, perhaps, I never really needed to change my name in the first place. Some might say I just needed to be braver. But I like that these different names hark back to different stages in my development, and I am comfortable with the idea that figuring out how to integrate all the different aspects or myself is a never-ending process. All of this makes me think of a line by Rilke that says (depending on whose translation you look at) something along the lines of: “and we leave behind even our names, the way a child abandons a broken toy”.

2. You were brought up bilingual (to an English father and a Mexican mother, having spent the first part of your childhood in England and the rest, till the age 25, in Mexico). To which extent do you think this has influenced you into being a translator? Has it helped somehow?

Absolutely. My entire life experience has been marked by an obsession with language and the written world, and very real, embodied experiences of linguistic and cultural translation. My dad is a translator too, and runs a commercial translation agency. He gave me my first job after I graduated from university, and growing up, the conversations at the dinner table more often than not revolved around translation problems. My whole life has been like one never-ending Translation Summer School (for those who have attended such things, you’ll know that’s pretty intense!). I don’t know if any of this has helped me as a person, as it has made me a bit too aware of language, in a way that can be pretty dysfunctional when it comes to off-the-page interpersonal communication (as most of my friends and family will attest!). But it definitely gave me a career path which I love dearly and am deeply grateful for. And the longer I work in this profession, the more I realise that being bilingual will never automatically equip you with the ability to translate. So many more skills and tools are needed than that, and the learning process is infinite. Each new translation project teaches me a lot, and that’s precisely the fun of it.

3. Having been based in Glasgow since 2007, you say you have a fascination with the Scots language(s). It’s interesting that you say that, because I’ve just arrived from a vacation in Europe, when I visited Edinburgh for the first time and was genuinely impressed and fascinated by their English, so I would love to hear what you have to say about it. Can you give us examples of what fascinates you most in the Scots language(s)?

I love the immense variation in accents – a phenomenon that you get throughout the UK but which seems even more marked in Scotland, where words seem closer to their roots and down in the ground instead of coming out of your mouth like rings of smoke and floating above your head the way they do in things like RP. Leaving Gaelic aside (which is a whole other thing I haven’t explored very much yet) in Scotland you have the Doric of the northeast coast, the Dundonian, the sing-songy accent of Fife, and even within Glasgow you get a huge array of different accents: Southside versus the east end Dennistoun versus East Kilbride. Many of these variations intersect with the old trade routes and family histories of migration, as well as social class. Then you have the historic Scots – what Robert Burns wrote in – and modern literary Scots, which may or may not be a mashup of Scots from different regions. The vocabulary comes from Germanic, Old French and Dutch, but the grammar is also different, as is the pace, intonation and pronunciation. Literary Scots also often has to reinvent its own spelling each time it is written, as a way to represent on the page the way people speak. I adore not always being fully able to understand what people are saying and instead just bathing in the music people make with their mouths; just giving in and letting it wash over me like it’s pure poetry. My earliest encounters with Scottish accents were through the film Trainspotting and Mogwai’s first album, Young Team, where one of the songs includes a telephone conversation which I couldn’t understand a word of, despite being a native speaker of what was purportedly the same language. Here’s a few lines of my favourite poem by Alexander Hutchison, who wrote in Doric as well as English (you can read the whole poem here):

                                                                   Deid-loss or Daidalos

                                                                   fit’s it gaan tae be?

 

Pooshin pumpers, coonter-jumpers, cairpet fitters birslin wi a moo-fae

o tacks; tomcats; corncrakes; shilly-shally sharn shifters; couthy bicuspids;

aa the wee glisterin anes; aa them that wid grudge ye one jow o the bell.

 

The neist yett swung, syne mair wis kythit: tethered tups,

draigelt yowes; the slalom loons fae Dandruff Canyon; wheepers

o candy-floss; footerin futtrets; the hee-haw-hookum o hystet hizzies;

foosty fowk lik Finnan haddies; Buckie blaavers wi the full wecht o blaw.

 

As you can imagine, carrying all this into Spanish was no easy feat. My approach was to use a combination of modern northeastern Mexican slang and archaic words and to be as musical as possible to try and replicate what the poem is doing. I don’t know how successful I was, but I definitely want to work with Scots.

I recently wrote a long love poem to the Scots language. As is my habit, the poem moves between different languages, in this case English, Scots, Spanish and Italian. Whilst performing it I become hyper aware of where the words sit in my body: I was already well familiar with the way Spanish booms in my chest while English thins out above my head, but I was amazed by how the Scots goes back down to my chest. I probably need to write a whole other poem about that, too.

4. You have worked in a couple of co-translations (An Orphan World, by Giuseppe Caputo, with Sophie Hughes; Sexographies, by Gabriela Wiener, with Lucy Greaves). How is the experience of co-translating different from translating a book entirely by yourself?

It’s basically a lot less lonely, and a lot more fun. It’s being able to engage in a three way collaboration: not just with the author who may or may not want to be very involved in the process personally, but with someone who understands the mechanisms of both languages and every single one of the minute problems you are trying to resolve. You get to make a lot of insider jokes that only you and your co-translator will ever understand. And, personally, I grow to love the work a lot more through the love that emerges in the collaborative process. Even though I’m a writer, I sometimes don’t work particularly well in isolation. I can get bogged down in the details, or stuck for days trying to come up with a solution to something that my co-translator doesn’t even see as a problem: to them the answer is obvious. Then of course comes a whole other conversation, and I think the translation becomes richer because of it. Each translation is a different reading, and a co-translation is merging two different readings into one. It is a wonderful luxury and a very rare one in the world of books: as readers, during the act of reading, we are always alone with the text. We may be able to talk about our reading experience with a fellow reader after the fact, but we really get to do with another person the kind of close reading that translation is. If I could, I would only ever do co-translation for the rest of my days.

5. Besides being a translator, you are a poet and musician, playing in two all-female bands (including writing some of the songs in one of them). Talk about talent in arts! Do they combine somehow and add to each other or help in one another?

Music helps me immensely. It both grounds me and lifts my spirits, and when I’ve been playing music my writing and translating feel freer, more relaxed and spontaneous. The voice I’m looking for takes less time to appear: I can hear it more clearly in my head, and all I have to do is transcribe. I did try and quit music for good at some point: it was the worst mistake of my life. I’ve never been so depressed or creatively blocked. I’ve now promised myself to always play music, even if just to myself in my bedroom, because it makes me a better writer and a better translator.

6. Last November, you presented at the Glasgow Feminist Arts Festival at an event called So It Is Better To Speak, which explored “the fluidity and complexity of women-identifying and non-binary identities through sound, voice and the body,” and emphasized “the importance of shared knowledges and experiences that emerge when we speak up and out.” Sounds really interesting! Could you tell us a bit more about how it was and what exactly you did?

That was one of the best events I’ve ever had the honour to take part in. The festival was organised and curated by the brilliant film critic and scholar Becca Harrison, and the event included a balancing act from composer Amble Skuse, Scottish folk song with a feminist twist from Burd Ellen, contemporary flute from Diljeet Bhachu; storytelling from Mara Menzies; and a queer sermon by performance maker Nelly Kelly. The performances were followed by a roundtable discussion hosted by Dee Heddon of the University of Glasgow. It’s not often that you get to see music, performance, poetry and storytelling in a single event which also has an intersectional feminist focus. It was a true luxury to see everyone’s work alongside each other and then have the time to talk about our creative processes and how feminism informs our practice, exploring questions we don’t often get to ask ourselves and each other. It surprised me that we all seemed to be working with the archive in one way or anthoer, drawing from it but also resisiting it in different ways, re-inventing or fictionalising it as a way to subvert the heteropatriarchal discourse. And I learned a lot from hearing all of these insanely talented artists talk about their work, as they helped me understand my own practice from a different angle, and even gave me new ideas for how to tackle work in progress that I’d been struggling with. The event was packed out at the CCA in Glasgow, with the only man in the audience being Becca’s boyfriend! But that was somehow even better. I cannot wait for the festival’s next edition, and if I didn’t live in Glasgow I would travel just to come to it. It is as unique and richly informative as it is urgent in our current times. Definitely keep your eyes peeled for it and come to it if you can.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’d like to nominate my beloved co-translator, Sophie Hughes.

Greatest Women in Translation: Robin Myers

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

This month, I talk to Robin Myers, US-born, Mexico City-based literary translator and poet, nominated by Charlotte Whittle.

Robin Myers

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1. Could you start by telling us about your beginning in translation?

I first became fascinated with translation in my late teens. At the time, it felt like the natural amalgam of several other interests: poetry, the Spanish language, and Mexico. I was born and raised in the US, but part of my father’s family came from Mexico; I visited a couple times as a child and always wanted to spend more time here. So I studied Spanish as the means to this very specific end. I lived in the city of Oaxaca for a few months after high school, then again halfway through college. It was during those early experiences of real immersion—in the language, in a place I loved, in my first Spanish-speaking friendships, in my first forays into reading contemporary Mexican literature—that I started experimenting with translation. There was something very simple and earnest about those initial explorations: I just wanted to share what I was reading (whether in English or Spanish) with people I cared about. As innocent as this may sound to me now—or at least as far removed as it can feel from certain parts of the day-to-day grind—I still believe that the desire to translate springs from the desire to connect, period. Of course we want that! Of course we want to bring disparate words, disparate worlds together.

In any case, it wasn’t too long before my translatorly hopes and expectations came into contact with more technical realities. In college, I spent a semester studying in Buenos Aires and took a workshop with Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, a remarkable Argentine poet and translator. Ezequiel’s approach emphasized the metrical building blocks of the Spanish-language poetic tradition, and at first I railed against this focus on syllable-counting and form. But I came around, and I started to genuinely enjoy the search for poetic “solutions” within a set of formal parameters. Ezequiel’s mentorship was very important to me as I started translating in a more professional way, and we’ve both gone on to translate each other’s work over the years, which has been a great gift.

2. Besides being a translator you are also a poet. Does being a poet help as translator and vice-versa? If so, how?

It absolutely helps. Both poetry and translation (and by this I mean the translation of anything, not just poetry) are practices rooted in the materiality of language. If you write poetry or translate anything, you are in the business of dealing with words as stuff, as resources, as concrete elements you shape and combine to form certain structures and spark particular effects in the reader. Of course, in translation, you’re using language in response to—in relation to—language that already exists in the world. You’re writing (because translating is also writing) in the service of and in complicity with that language. In this sense, too, translation demands both that you saturate yourself with the original text and that you distance yourself from it. That doubleness has helped me write my own poetry, I think, at least in the sense that it’s made the experience of writing poetry much more interesting. For one thing, it’s made me more conscious of the artifice of whatever I’m doing (and I mean “artifice” not as an insult but as a fact). For the same reason, it’s also made me feel freer to experiment: to think with more curiosity and more gratitude about language as “tools” and how I might try them out. I do feel that writing poetry affects my translations as well, or my approach to translating. For example, I care a great deal about sound when I write poetry, about what happens to words when we string them together and speak them aloud, and I feel a similar need to “hear” what language does in translating both poetry and prose. That said, I don’t mean to talk about this obsession with sound as if it were strictly the domain of poetry, much less of poets, because that’s not the case at all! I’m just musing about what it feels like for me in going about things as I go about them.

3. Could you please kindly share one of your (short) poems with us?

Here’s an untitled poem (they’re all untitled) from a collection called Having, which was translated into Spanish by Ezequiel Zaidenwerg and published as Tener in Argentina, Mexico, and (soon) Spain:

You can have it.

You can have the mad dash
and the mist,
the burned tongue
and honey-slick,
the cup
intact.

The night rage, the gray dawn
forgiving you.

The train,
the track.

The soft hairs
at the nape of the neck,
the thrilled plunge
and the cast.

You can have the rest of it.

You can rest.

It will drive you mad.

You will scald your way through
the days, trying
to have all of it,

having it.

4. In this interview you gave for the Los Angeles Review of Books, you said “translation is a weird, lovely, mysterious, largely invisible relationship, both for the translator and for the translated.” Why is that?

I mean, it’s so intimate! Even if the author and translator never meet, even if the author can’t read the language she’s been translated into, even if the author’s been dead for hundreds of years. No matter what, the translator gets to—has to—inhabit the text, figure out what makes it run, spend an unholy amount of time studying how the author thinks and what she cares about.

The translator invariably has to make tradeoffs, has to figure out what can or should or under no circumstances ought to be sacrificed. It feels like a serious responsibility!

The translator is entrusted with something. With any luck, if she and the author exist on the same mortal plane and can talk to each other and choose to do so, they’ll both view the translation process as something that links them together. And they’ll both register this as an honor: the translator, honored at the invitation to engage with the text, attend to it, and deliver it somewhere new; the translated, honored to have her work—which she, too, once produced in a solitary act of faith—engaged with, attended to, and delivered in this way. But even if the translator and the author walk the earth at different moments in history, or are never in personal contact, or don’t even personally like each other very much, this relationship still exists. The devotion, the attention, the responsibility, the anxiety, the fact that the translator ultimately creates a second work of art that is both inseparable from and necessarily independent of the first: it’s all there, all the time. I find it so strange! Thrillingly strange, though.

5. Your poems are translated into other languages, including Portuguese, right? How is it like being in both sides, as translator and translated author?

It’s been very joyful and moving. Yes, poems of mine have been translated mostly into Spanish, with shorter selections into Galician, Arabic, and Portuguese. Many of these translations have emerged from long-term dialogues and friendships; several of the translators are themselves poets I’ve translated from Spanish into English. So it’s hard to be objective about it; it’s all felt like a series of long, warm conversations, marked by a sense both of deep connection and of distance. Distance in the sense that I always hope a translator will feel that the poems also belong to her, you know? In all her particularities, all her personal styles and tastes and approaches.

If I write a poem and someone else translates it—or the other way around—it’s ours.

Part of what I still find uniquely powerful about the experience of being translated into Spanish, though, is that my books have only been published in Spanish translation. Not in English, and not in my own country of origin. And since I’m based in Mexico, when I take part in poetry readings, for example, I mostly read in Spanish. Which means I’m directly and constantly identifying myself with someone else’s work as my primary form of participation. Which means I’m inhabiting and sharing theirs as much as my own.

6. Are you currently translating any books? If so, could you tell us a bit about them?

I currently have three prose projects in the works: by Mónica Ramón Ríos (Chile), there’s Cars on Fire, a wild, free-wheeling, darkly funny collection of short stories set between Chile and New York, forthcoming from Open Letter Books in 2020; Animals at the End of the World, a novel by Gloria Susana Esquivel (Colombia) about a young girl growing up in her grandparents’ house in Bogotá, forthcoming from the University of Texas Press in 2020; and The Restless Dead, a book of critical essays by Cristina Rivera Garza (Mexico) about disappropriation, “necropolitics,” and contemporary literature. I’m also working on various poetry projects in hopes of eventually finding homes for them in English. These include work by Javier Peñalosa, Maricela Guerrero, and Isabel Zapata (three Mexican poets whose recent books take beautifully and radically different approaches to the natural world and its relationship with contemporary humans); Daniel Lipara, Claudia Masin, and Alejandro Crotto (all from Argentina); and Adalber Salas Hernández (from Venezuela).

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’d like to nominate Juana Adcock, a Mexican-born, Scotland-based poet and translator. Juana translates between Spanish and English in both directions (a superpower that never ceases to amaze me!). Into English, she is the translator of Sexographies by Gabriela Wiener (with Lucy Greaves) and An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo (with Sophie Hughes). I met Juana in person only recently, although we’d been in touch for months before that, because I had the privilege of translating her poetry collection Manca into English. By the end of the process—which involved great openness, engagement, and creativity on her part—I really felt that Juana and I had become co-translators. I feel lucky to know her and learn from her in both languages!

Greatest Women in Translation: Charlotte Whittle

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series, dearest readers!

This month, our Great Woman in Translation is the British-American literary translator Charlotte Whittle, nominated by Julia Sanches.

Charlotte Whittle

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1. I always love to learn about translators’ beginnings in translation. How about starting by telling us yours?

My path into translation wasn’t exactly a linear one. I grew up in a monolingual family, learned Spanish in Mexico when I was 18, studied Spanish and literature in college in the UK, and lived in Peru and Chile. The first translations I remember doing were of César Vallejo, when I was still an undergraduate. I was living in Peru and became obsessed with his work. Translating poems seemed to me like the best way to engage with them, to get inside them and see how they worked, and there was something really thrilling about making them breathe in another language. A couple of years later, I did a diploma in translation studies in Santiago de Chile, but this was an experience that closed doors as well as opening them. My final project was a translation of a story by the great Peruvian writer José María Arguedas. I was so happy thinking about and doing translation, but I remember the instructor saying in very clear terms that it was impossible to make a living from literary translation. Being young and inexperienced, I took his word for it, and I didn’t pursue translation seriously for a long time after that. I took the academic route, and translated poems for fun. I discovered that I loved teaching, but after a few years, I found it didn’t leave me enough time for creative projects. I finally realized that translation was the activity that brought my skills, experience, and interests together under one umbrella, and that was when I decided to make it my focus, despite the dire warnings of penury.

2. Could you tell us why your translation of Norah Lange’s People in the Room can be considered important for the gender imbalance in literature?

The data collected on this subject – for instance, by the Three Percent Translation Database, now housed by Publishers Weekly – tells us that of all the books translated into English, as many as three fourths are by men. Why is this? Partly because of the implicit bias that male writers are somehow more “important,” partly because of the lack of gender parity in publishing in other countries as well as our own, and partly because, while women translators translate both men and women nearly to equal degrees, male translators seem to be more disposed towards translating men.

 People in the Room was published in English 68 years after it first appeared in Spanish; during that lapse, Lange received significantly less critical attention in her home country than her male peers (who were also more often translated), despite the importance of her writing. It’s so easy for women writers who weren’t sufficiently lauded in their time to pass under the radar, and translators can play a role in rectifying this. Obviously, I’m not claiming to be able to shift the canon with a single translation, but the fact that I was able to find a publisher for this novel and that Lange’s work has been well received in English, demonstrates that there has been a small change in the tide, at least in the world of literary fiction in translation. I think there is more interest than there’s been in the past in projects that draw attention to women writers who’ve been overlooked. Recent books such as The Houseguest by Amparo Dávila, translated by Audrey Harris and Matt Gleeson, and The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers, translated by Kit Maude, are further evidence that there is now an audience for this kind of work. All these projects are significant because they go some way towards rebalancing the gender inequality in translation. Of course, there’s a lot more to be done and there are multiple forces at play, but things are slowly evolving in a positive direction.

3. You are currently working on the translation of Jorge Comensal’s The Mutations. Do you feel there are any particularities between translating men x women?

Norah Lange and Jorge Comensal could hardly be more different: People in the Room is somber and full of mystery, while The Mutations is satirical and hilarious, but I would trace differences between authors to geographic region, time period, and individual authors’ concerns and idiosyncrasies before making sweeping statements about gender differences. In the cases of both these books, their style captivated me, I felt a deep, personal draw to their subject matter, and an urgent need to share them with English-language readers. In terms of the practicalities of the two translations, perhaps the biggest difference was that one author was dead and the other alive. Sometimes, when translating Lange, I wished I could hold a séance, or a table-tapping session like the one described in her book, just to be able to ask her if she thought I was on the right track. In contrast, I talk to Jorge often, and think our conversations have enriched the translation process. But to go back to the question of gender, the concerns and idiosyncrasies that make writers unique may result from their experience, and gender can certainly be a factor in that. A woman writing in the mid-C20th is working under a different set of constraints than a man writing in the present. As a translator, I think about gender less in terms of the characteristics of the writing, and more in relation to the conditions that determine how writing by men and women is read and received, and the conditions that allow them to write in the first place.

4. Could you also talk a bit about your translation of Agus Morales’ We are not Refugees?

Morales is a Spanish journalist who has spent most of a decade gathering the stories of members of displaced populations in different parts of the world. We Are Not Refugees is the result of his intensive exploration of the factors that cause mass migration, and the real-life experiences of those who are forced to flee. The book describes the situation of multiple displaced communities: Central Americans fleeing northwards from violence, Afghan and Syrian refugees in Turkey, internal displacement in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Few writers have such breadth of experience when it comes to mass migration, and Morales identifies the specifics of a range of cases, while also finding commonalities between them. He writes movingly of his subjects, while letting those he encounters tell their own stories, so readers can get to know some of the faces behind the headlines to which we are often numb. I came away from this project with so much admiration for writers and journalists who have the emotional stamina to tell these stories in a clear-eyed manner.

5. What have you learned so far about being a (literary) translator that you could pass on to newbies?

I’m still learning! But here are a few things that come to mind: I’ve learned that it’s difficult, but not impossible, to pay your bills as a translator; that there are many different ways a book can happen; that there’s no limit to how much a translation can change during the first few drafts; and that the editor is not the enemy.

But the most important thing I’ve learned so far is that as translators, we have to create our own community.

Translating books requires hour after hour of solitary work, week after week, month after month. Without an office to go to or a cohort of colleagues you see every day, it can get lonely. That’s why I’m so incredibly grateful for my translation colleagues, both in New York and further afield. I have regular workshops with translator friends where we discuss everything from tricky sentences to how to collectively improve working conditions for translators. It’s important to see your colleagues as allies rather than competitors, and the brilliant and fascinating people I’ve met through this work are one of the things I most treasure about it.

6. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’m nominating Robin Myers, a translator from Spanish based in Mexico City. Robin is a tireless translator of poetry and prose, and an extraordinary poet in her own right. I recently devoured her translation of Empty Pool, a collection of gorgeous, luminous essays by Isabel Zapata. I also had the pleasure of editing her translation of Ezequiel Zaidenwerg’s Lyric Poetry Is Dead for Cardboard House Press, where we publish bilingual editions of Latin American Poetry. Robin’s handling of rhythm and meter in that collection is a masterclass – I’ll leave it to her to tell you more about it!

Robin’s interview will be published on June 3, as I’ll be on vacation from April 20 to May 19.