Monday, June 13, 2022

2022 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist interviews: Ed Roberson

Asked What Has Changed, Ed Roberson
Wesleyan University Press, 2021
2022 Griffin Poetry Prize • International Shortlist

interviewed by rob mclennan

The 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced on June 15, 2022.

Ed Roberson, born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a contemporary poet interested in the environment, visuality, and spirituality. He is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including MPH + Other Road Poems (2021), the chapbook Closest Pronunciation (2013), To See the Earth Before the End of the World (2010), which was a runner up for the Los Angeles Times Poetry Award, The New Wing of the Labyrinth (2009), City Eclogue (2006), and Atmosphere Conditions (1999), which was chosen for the National Poetry Series, and was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. He lives in Chicago, where he has taught at the University of Chicago, Columbia College, and Northwestern University.

I’m curious about the way you structure poems, each of which seem to expand out of a single, opening point, usually articulated through your use of titles. What brought you to where you are now, of composing poems as such forms of inquiry, opening and engagement?

I see form as information, structure as information about what it encompasses, an argument; then I see balance as a form of answer.

I first thought of poems as a different way of seeing that enlarged our seeing in ways simpler language couldn’t. Now I’ve begun to see the forms and structures of poetry not just as a way of seeing, or as a discourse in/on a different level, but as a way of discovery, of inquiry, as a way of solving questions or problems. So the ABA form; or the strophe, antistrophe, epode; or the octet, volta, and sestet all come to be methodologies of music, of imageries, of poetry right now.

The way this collection is structured suggests poems that sit together less through an array of narrative propulsion or through-line than as a suite of poems that flow across a broader canvas, allowing for the ebb and flow of subject and lyric. How do your poetry manuscripts, then, form themselves? Have you a particular series of subjects or structures you wish to engage, or do books form more organically?

There is no typical way in which my manuscripts are formed other than the pile in which the poems collect on my desk. My writing style is similarly unorganized—or, rather to say, organic. I write on anything: newspaper or magazine blank spaces, the tear-off section of bills and renewal forms, packaging—anything. I write with anything—ink, pencil—and only later put the writing into the computer. I continue refining the compositions for rhythmical timing (by line and by spacing, open and vertical), for graphic image and form (by line count, repetition, and stanzaic structure), and for music (by reading aloud). Then a final typed copy is made, saving all the revisions. This can take a day or several weeks. I work on several ideas/poems simultaneously.

Are there particular pieces composed through this system that might not fit into the manuscript you are currently working on, but might land in something else down the line? I suppose this question leans into wondering if you compose multiple manuscript-threads simultaneously.

I learned to draw from my dad, who would draw what he was going to build as a way of understanding what he was about to do as much as envisioning his finished box, cabinet, or room extension on the house. I take seeing as a way of explaining or understanding from him. My understanding, and love, of poetry took off like a slingshot when I discovered images and what different figurations could do. My work is visual, yes, but not simply descriptive.

I’m curious to read that you studied painting in your youth. I’m wondering how your engagement in visual art might have informed the structure of how you approach or construct poems?

I seem interested in the language of vision, the rhythms and conceptualizations that go on when seeing and the transformations that occur. So images that talk back and forth, take stands (masks) and work it out or not, is what impels my poems. Hence, the serial poem and its choral, community format. Any image or visual statement can set off a poem, so I’m always open to a poem, but what pile, what discussion, i.e., what manuscript it will join is up to the mind of the group. Yes, multiple threads because I’m always watching, looking at multiple things in a changing world from fluctuating engaged viewpoints.

Have you been writing much in the way of poetry since asked what has changed was completed? What have you been working on since?

I’m writing a lot of art reviews, criticism, which seems in line with the poems’ review and criticism of seeing, of perception and knowledge. I like the way a figure or an image in a poem can line out the knowledge within something while also drawing out the emotional encompass of its mystery.

Friday, June 10, 2022

2022 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist interviews: Ali Kinsella and Dzvinia Orlowsky

Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow, Ali Kinsella and Dzvinia Orlowsky, translated from the Ukrainian written by Natalka Bilotserkivets
Lost Horse Press, 2021
2022 Griffin Poetry Prize • International Shortlist

interviewed by rob mclennan

The 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced on June 15, 2022.

Ali Kinsella has been translating from Ukrainian for nine years. Her published works include essays, poetry, monographs, and subtitles to various films. With Ostap Kin she translated Vasyl Lozynsky’s chapbook The Maidan After Hours (2017). She won the 2019 Kovaliv Fund Prize for her translation of Taras Prokhasko’s Anna’s Other Days. She holds an MA in Slavic studies from Columbia University, where she focused on Eastern European history and literature. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Ali lived in both Western and Central Ukraine for nearly five years. She now lives in Chicago, where she also sometimes works as a baker.

Dzvinia Orlowsky is the author of six poetry collections, including Bad Harvest (2019), a Massachusetts Book Awards ‘Must Read’ in Poetry. She is a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Poetry Grant, a Sheila Motton Book Award, and a co-recipient of a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship. She is a contributing poetry editor to Solstice Literary Magazine and founder of Night Riffs: A Solstice Magazine Readings & Music Series. She teaches poetry and creative writing at Providence College, and is a Writer-in-Residence at the Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program.

Natalka Bilotserkivets has published five volumes of poetry. Her work, known for lyricism and the quiet power of despair, became a hallmark of Ukraine’s literary life of the 1980s and 1990s. The collections Allergy and Central Hotel were Books of the Year in 2000 and 2004, respectively. Still, the majority of her oeuvre remains unknown in the West. She lives and works in Kyiv.

I’m curious about the process of two translators on a single work. What was your process of working together, and how did this particular project emerge?

Ali Kinsella: This project was very new for me in that I hadn’t ever worked so intensively on poetry, nor had I ever collaborated so thoroughly with another translator. We agreed that I should do the first, quite literal drafts and that Dzvinia should come in after me and shape them into something more resembling poems. This approach was sort of obvious, given our respective strengths. Each draft then had at least one collaborative editing session over the phone, but sometimes three with extra notes emailed back and forth. As we have now been working together for over two years, we can work much faster. In working with Dzvinia, I have really had a master class in poetry and I can anticipate some of her critiques and concerns better—or at least I’d like to think so.

Dzvinia Orlowsky: You definitely do, Ali! And thanks to Ali’s careful attention to detail, I’ve broadened my understanding and appreciation of unexpected tense shifts, gender fluidity, and the nuances of the Ukrainian language.

With respect to our collaborative process, Ali summed it up perfectly. I would only add that in finding our complementary strengths as translators, we also had to develop a sense of trust for each other as readers. I lean more toward figurative rather than literal interpretations—leaps of faith! So I tended to look for metaphors where maybe Natalka didn’t intend them. Ali favored staying closer to the original text and its literal meaning. We also interpreted several of the poems in this collection differently. For example, Ali understood Wolf Wine Bar to be about climate change, whereas I saw it as a poem about war (note: this was prior to Russia’s February invasion). Honestly, it could be read both ways. This kind of discussion made our project that much more challenging and exciting. Natalka gave us the freedom to interpret her poems as we felt them, but we were also able to reach out to her for help on poems that touched on subject matter we weren’t familiar with.

I suppose a question I should ask Ali, given your previous experience of translating works from Ukrainian, how did the experience of translating Bilotserkivets’ work differ? Were there elements you needed to approach through translation that were unique to her poetry?

AK: Translating poetry is very different from prose, mainly because the art form is so compact. An obvious sacrifice that must often be made in poetry translation is rhyme, but beyond rhyme, there are meter, sound, imagery, and meaning. Not all of these elements can be preserved and choices have to be made. Of course, there are other considerations when translating prose—tone, register—but the endless blank page leaves so much room for compensation. If a joke or pun doesn’t work where it was in the original, throw one in somewhere else!

Most of the poems included in Eccentric Days were originally written in free verse, but there were a few that we “converted” since we were sure we couldn’t preserve the rhyme scheme and have the poem still come off as serious. So, the real new challenge for me as someone who came from primarily translating prose, was paying so much attention to sound (especially since musicality is such an important element to Bilotserkivets), lyricism, and image. Dzvinia was more willing than I to consider metaphorical rather than literal meaning in order to benefit the poem as a whole, and I’m very grateful to her for helping to lead me away from strict literalness (which isn’t exactly how I’d categorize my prose translations, but by comparison they certainly approach verbatim).

The collection is an impressive size, in no small part to the decision to include Natalka Bilotserkivets’ original writing in Ukrainian alongside your translations. For such a hefty work, what was behind the choice to include the work in its original form?

AK: The book came out as part of a bilingual series. The publisher, Christine Lysnewycz Holbert, had a minimum length for us, but put no cap on the number of poems or quantity of miscellanea. Still, we only included the poems that we wanted to be a part of this collection; this was far from an exercise in throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck.

DO:  Many literary magazines and journals publish the original text alongside the translated work. In addition to other advantages, it grants ocular proof that such a poem exists!  As a translator, I welcome the presence of a foreign language on the page. In our book, you’ll see that the poems mirror each other fairly consistently. There are exceptions, however. For example, in our translation of Natalka’s poem “Nature,” the last stanza is elongated in comparison to the original. The poem’s intention and meaning hasn’t changed; but the artistic decision, here, is to slow the pace—to emphasize the speaker losing those cherished and no longer audible, sensory sounds. We wanted to hold that line, the word “secret,” in suspension before resolving to “tears, laughter.” After all, if it’s given up too easily, it never really was a secret…

Given the way the Ukrainian language has shifted and changed over the years, I feel Lost Horse Press’s bilingual books provide an invaluable record of Ukrainian-language poetry at specific time in its literary history. I appreciate being able to switch between Ukrainian and English—with the end goal of improving my Ukrainian. 

Was there a difficulty, through your translations, of maintaining what you referred to as her “ungendered present tense”?

AK: Well, the specific problem of gender is an issue having to do with Ukrainian grammar that doesn’t exist in English. Ukrainian is a highly inflected language with cases that give us noun and adjective declensions, verbal conjugations, and gender, which affects nouns, adjectives, and verbs in the past tense. This might make Ukrainian sound rigid, but the words’ taking all these modifications actually means speakers can be quite creative and also leave many things—like the sentences of subjects—merely implied. (Perhaps you, too, remember that eye-opening day in Spanish 101 when you learned you could just say, “tienes,” to mean you and have.) So, while the past tense has often felt too restrictive for Natalka as it forces her to pick a gender for her speaker (something English speakers never face), the present tense allows her to get away without using pronouns (something English speakers can’t usually pull off).

There were times when we were, in fact, made to choose either “he” or “she,” but mostly we found other ways to sidestep getting boxed in—“you” is the most obvious choice, and one that Natalka herself often makes. On the topic of grammatical gender in language, I do remember just barely catching a big mistake before the book went to press. Natalka has a small little untitled poem that punches above its weight class that starts, “Life is simple and quiet / and I love it.” I had mistakenly translated the pronoun “it” here as “he” (they are the same in this case), which completely changes the poem and actually in that state we had considered discarding it. But this is the challenge of a non-native speaker who has to actively remind herself that the “hes” and “shes” she sees are often just “its.”

DO: I’d say Ali has answered this question thoroughly, and I feel lucky that I didn’t have to wrestle with these considerations to the extent that she did. 

In terms of making poetic/thematic choices while maintaining an “ungendered present tense,” I agree—particularly early on, this created some difficulty for us because, as Ali notes, if we got the pronoun wrong, we could easily miss the point of the poem. And we didn’t want to overwhelm Natalka with picky, poem-to-poem questions. Early on, I spent too much time making sure I got individual poems “right.” I had to remind myself what I know as a poet shaping my own work into a collection:  each poem informs the poems that follow it. By the time Ali and I were half-way through our manuscript, we had a better sense of its constellation and were able to resolve gender and tense questions more quickly. As for Natalka’s proclivity toward using the present tense, that worked well for us. It contributed to a sense of immediacy and intimacy which we strove to capture in her work.

Since the completion of Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow, have there been any further translation projects the two of you might consider collaborating on, whether Natalka Bilotserkivets’ work or anyone else?

DO: We are always interested in Natalka’s work and have published several co-translations of her newer poems. In addition, Ali and I are very moved by the work of a Lviv-based award-winning poet, translator, and fiction writer for children, Halyna Kruk. We have been translating some of her poems. Serendipitously, this past spring Lost Horse Press approached us about publishing a collection of her poetry. I was at AWP at the time we signed the contract. Look for that book in 2024!

Monday, June 6, 2022

Tea Gerbeza : excerpts from a long poem

conversations on the long poem












Tea Gerbeza (she/her) is a queer disabled poet and multimedia artist. Tea’s new work appears or is forthcoming in the anthology Nothing Without Us Too, the Literary Review of Canada, Contemporary Verse 2, and untethered magazine. She is a 2022 Zoeglossia Fellow. Tea resides in the Canadian prairies with her spouse and three corgis. Find out more on

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