Jen Currin and William Stobb Poems



Translations: Jen Currin and William Stobb


We asked two poets to exchange work and create interpretations of each other's poems. Click on the links below to read the original texts and new interpretations, and then come back to get the poets’ commentary on the process.




New Security Technologies by Jen Currin; reinterpreted by William Stobb


William Stobb Commentary


I guess I’d say I often “use” some stimulus to start writing, so “using” Jen’s poem was a familiar experience.  I think my writing practice is mainly a form of ekphrasis—whether I’m looking at a piece of visual art, like Oldenburg and Van Bruggen’s “Spoon Bridge and Cherry,” or whether I’m simply attuned to the sensation stream the body and mind constantly provides—constantly is, really—there’s always some material I’m taking in to open my writing process.  Because writing this way is familiar to me, I didn’t find it unusual to read Jen’s poem and follow sparks off of it into new language that opened in me. 


My writing process was originally ignited by something that’s not really visible in my poem: my sense of “New Security Technologies” as a living organism.  I see its very distinct stanzas/sections, which don’t speak directly to each other, as something like organs carrying out separate functions to help maintain an overall pulse.  The homeostasis the poem achieves isn’t entirely available to summary or paraphrase, yet the poem lives, urgently and vividly.  I think this sense of embodiment in my reading of “New Security Technologies,” really sprung from the word “system,” in its second line.  My poetry collection, Nervous Systems, was just published when Jen’s poem arrived.  Maybe excessively, maybe narcissistically, my book was in my head and hands a lot—the title phrase like a kind of mantra I was continually processing.   I began writing by looking up dictionary definitions of words like kidney, neurotransmitter, lymph—I was trying to get at some very physical metaphor to move forward with, but wasn’t getting past the isolated definitions of these “parts” of systems I was researching.  A couple of flat, uninteresting lines about spleens came before a moment of frustration opened the parenthetical where the poem now begins.  At that point, “No Dictionary” kind of righted itself and walked down its sidewalk. 


The most literal relationship of my poem to Jen’s is probably in the scanner imagery in the final lines of “No Dictionary.”  That image stayed with me through the whole process of the poem and then appeared, un-planned, as an ending.  Also, though, the cell phone image stayed in my process to echo in the middle of “No Dictionary.” 


A poetry muddle around the ideas “place” and “world” figured centrally in my writing.  The words “the place” at the beginning of Jen’s final stanza probably triggered this thinking: I had recently drafted a poem that attempted to reconstruct a place that  mattered to me.  In that poem, I worried over the nature of “place,” the sense of something essential at the center of the concept of “place,” the implication of something static and pure that we’re supposed to contact when we experience “place.”  As part of my miPOradio column, “Hard to Say,” I had recently interviewed the poet Claudia Keelan about a concept of “exile” through which she conducts her work—an un-placed ethic, a way of living outside the bounded-ness of “place.”  In her discussion of the concept, she referred to Wittgenstein’s  Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which opens with the dictum, “The world is all that is the case.”  Not only is this a proposition that stumps me—what are we poets and philosophers talking about when we say, “the world” over and over again?  It’s a little wistful, isn’t it?  A little nostalgic?  Maybe the sound of Jen’s use of “the place” simply chimed with “case” in my mind.  Maybe that simple little bell set up my whole approach to this “translation.” 


I thought very seriously about the word “translate,” and what a same-language translation might entail.  I can understand how a poet more oriented toward the material of language, and less to the flow of image and idea through an imaginative plane, might do something more literal with the physical language of the poem.  In fact, “New Security Technologies” seems very open to this approach.  Its ending provides a perfect leaping point into some new usages of the word “paradise,” and who knows what delights might follow such a beginning.  An approach like that, I believe, might produce a more legitimate kind of “translation,” by dwelling specifically on alternative constructions of the poem’s language plane.  But I wanted to see this as an opportunity in the most liberating sense—I wanted Jen’s poem to open my writing process.  That may be a selfish approach, but it’s the one I took—with its compelling collage of identities in systems, “New Security Technologies” stands beyond same-language translation, anyway—and I don’t regret it.


***  time elapses ***


At the end of this process, having been in touch with Jen, shared our drafts and emailed back and forth about them, I wanted to share one really amazing coincidence (Do really amazing coincidences inevitably happen in this kind of translation?):  Jen has a sister named Cherry.  So, at the end of “Poem of Reconstruction,” the consecutive parentheticals “(name the baby)” and “(cherry),” connected very personally with her.  I’m amazed by this coincidence—still can’t get my head around it. 






Poem of Reconstruction by William Stobb; reinterpreted by Jen Currin


Jen Currin Commentary


First I went through and tried to do some “sonic translations”—riffing off words/phrases to come up with similar sounding words/phrases. From “high winds” I got “sigh hinge”; “debris” became “chagrin.” A lot of these sound translations I wasn’t able to keep in my poem, but they helped me to deeply hear the rhythms/cadences of Bill’s poem.


Some of the sound translations led to lines—for example, from “sigh hinge” and the line that inspired it, two lines emerged: “In high winds/Cherry hinge & creak.” They were changed later to the lines that now comprise the beginning of the poem: “Looking in high winds—/hinge and creak.” There is a “Cherry” in Bill’s dedication, and the word also shows up a couple of times in “Poem of Reconstruction.” I ended up taking “Cherry” out of my poem and keeping her only in the dedication. One of my sisters is named Cherry, and this poem became--in many ways--about her.


After I worked with sound, I went through and stole some language. I love to try on another poet’s vocabulary, so this is one of the funnest parts of “translating” for me. I read the poem backwards (which was really reading upwards) and this produced some interesting combinations, such as “yellow trouble,” “teenage & illegal,” “orange boxes,” and “closed garden.” Reading back down, I came up with “Loose, aging sky,” “lovers beyond views,” and “swallow trouble.” Certain words jumped out at me--“intensify,” “orange,” “illegal,” “teenage,” “caution”—and I knew I wanted to work with them. Some of them—such as “teenage”—I just couldn’t manage to make work in my poem. Some of Bill’s combinations are so beautiful and interesting that I wanted to keep them intact: “adolescent weathers,” “teenage wind,” “when detail as loose,” “lost: what.” The only one that ended up staying in my version was “lost: what.” Probably because it sums up what is at the heart of nearly every great poem. The ultimate thesis statement!


I wanted the word “story” to be in the poem somewhere because Bill uses “stories” twice in his poem—and storying seemed an important idea for both poems. But I found it hard to use the word—I often do, although I love it—and had to, in the end, cut it.


Once I’d mined all I could, I started to work with the lines I had jotted down. I kept the poem’s sparse style, but didn’t keep the spacing. The words I borrowed or riffed off of engendered other words. There were some sound-companions—“chagrined” and “caution.” I took the lamp from “streetlamp” but left the street. This lamp went nicely with “enlightenment,” which is what became of “yellow.” The sky showed up twice. So did the line “Now she lifts the spoon,” which seems a nod to the original poem’s repetition of “spoon.” Also, since “gold” arrived at some point (I think after “aging sky”—an image of sunset), it went nicely with “spoon”—the idea of being born with one in your mouth (here I was thinking of the passage “(name the baby),” and also my sister Cherry’s birth and childhood). And naming came through in my version as well—in the title.











Jen Currin lives in Vancouver, B.C., where she is a member of the poetry collective vertigo west. She has published one book of poems (The Sleep of Four Cities, Anvil Press) and has one forthcoming (Hagiography, Coach House Books). Jen and her partner recently harvested about one hundred rose hips. They plan to make lots of tea this winter.


William Stobb is the author of Nervous Systems, a 2006 National Poetry Series selection, published by Penguin Books.  He teaches English at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and co-curates, with David Krump, the reading series at the Pump House Regional Arts Center.





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